Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom (United States, 2023)

December 28, 2023
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom Poster

Ten years ago, with much fanfare, the DC Extended Universe was born. Warner Brothers, riding the wave of success from Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, decided that rather than stick with stand-alone titles featuring their best-loved superheroes, they would instead chase Marvel by building a “shared universe.” The resultant umbrella project was rushed and chaotic with few standout films and a lot of duds. Justice League, rather than being DC’s answer to The Avengers, was a colossal misstep from which the DCEU never recovered. Now, with James Gunn preparing to reboot the entire DC canon, the task has fallen to Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom – never during production intended to be a final chapter – to close the book on the DCEU. Perhaps fittingly, this anticlimactic slog is what we have come to expect from DC movies – an overlong, visually cluttered experience that’s more interested in special effects and audio engineering than storytelling. The Aquaman sequel feels like it was mostly constructed in post-production, with CGI working hand-in-hand with editing to fashion something borderline-coherent. No matter how much fan love there might be for Jason Momoa, it’s not enough to save this production.

There are essentially three major threads fighting for screen time. The first, and most enjoyable, relates to the brotherly rivalry between Arthur Curry (Momoa), King of Atlantis, and his deposed younger sibling, former King Orm (Patrick Wilson). Circumstances force Arthur to break Orm out of prison and the two engage in a white-hot love/hate relationship worthy of a rom-com. (Momoa has about 10x more chemistry with Wilson than with Arthur’s alleged love interest, Mera, played by either Amber Heard or her cardboard lookalike.) Then there’s a revenge subplot, with Aquaman baddie Black Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) determined to wipe out Arthur’s entire bloodline using the black magic powers of his newly acquired “Black Trident.” Finally, there’s the weaponization of Climate Change – a plot contortion that recalls Superman IV’s disastrous attempt to meld real-world geopolitical concerns with a comic book storyline.

The film’s overcluttered CGI at least gives viewers pretty things to look at for two hours. Rupert Gregson-Williams’ score sounds suitably epic with discordant beats preparing viewers for big battles and ugly confrontations. But none of this means much of anything considering how little tension even the most extreme confrontation generates. The movie is so predictable that it’s possible to take a bathroom break in the middle of a major fight scene and have a more exciting time trying to get the automated soap dispenser working properly. I stepped out for two minutes and missed absolutely nothing. This is short attention span cinema at its most extreme.

Following the success of Aquaman, Warner Brothers decided that the best approach was to reform the band. So, in addition to re-signing most of the actors, director James Wan was lured back. Rumor has it that early test screenings were disastrous. Amber Heard’s involvement became divisive after her spousal abuse trial against Johnny Depp. The unclear future of the DCEU, which apparently resulted in both Michael Keaton and Ben Affleck filming scenes as Bruce Wayne (neither of which was ultimately used), hung like the Sword of Damocles over the extensive reshoots. Like The Flash, the movie was deemed too expensive a property to jettison, so it was released into theaters with a wing and a prayer – not the best strategy for a nine-figure production.

To the extent that there’s anything worthwhile to be found in Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom beyond the pretty visuals, one need look no further than the lead actor. Momoa has an easy, unforced charisma that shines regardless of whether he’s re-enacting a scene from Three Men and a Baby, fighting to stay awake during an Atlantean council meeting, or trying to keep us from dozing off as he goes on an endless search for Black Manta.

As far as the Climate Change element is concerned – this aspect of the plot is so badly mishandled that it will thrill deniers far and wide. Climate Change is placed on the same level of fantastical nonsense as Black Magic Tridents and wondrous underwater cities. I’m sure that screenwriters had the best of intentions when writing this into the story but the same can be said of Lawrence Konner & Mark Rosenthal when they sat down at a typewriter in 1986. What did we get out of that? Nuclear Man.

So I raise my glass to the DCEU – a decade-long cinematic excursion that, done differently, might have left behind more than a few, widely-scattered good memories. Some want to blame the pandemic for its failure but this is more a case of deep structural instability exacerbated by egomaniacal personalities and inept planning. The first Aquaman may have been low-brow fun but the second is a chore from start to finish. Momoa, we are told, will be back with DC in a different role. Hopefully this time he’ll have a screenplay worthy of his larger-than-life personality.

Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom (United States, 2023)

Run Time: 2:04
U.S. Release Date: 2023-12-22
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Violence)
Genre: Action/Adventure
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1