Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom shows the comic book movie genre at its most stale and soulless, sending the DCEU out with a whimper at the bottom of the sea.
Okay, fine, the haters win. The DCEU can die. Because if Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom is their idea of a good movie, I’m not sticking up for it anymore. I got laid off this month, and watching this movie was still the least enjoyable experience I’ve had the whole holiday season. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a new film, let alone a new superhero film, that offers so agonizingly little in terms of story, soul, charm, dedication, or even basic technical merit. I don’t even like the first Aquaman, but it’s looking like a masterpiece now compared to this. Hell, The Flash is looking pretty good compared to this.
Yeah, this review is gonna pretty much just be a rant. So … let’s rant.
Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom sees Jason Momoa return as Arthur Curry, who’s ruling Atlantis while also raising his newborn son on land. But David Kane (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), whose father was left to die by Arthur in the last film, is back somehow (I’m assuming it happened in a credits scene, but I don’t care enough to look it up) and still wants revenge. So, he gathers a team to seek out Atlantean artifacts and find a black trident that houses the soul and memory of an evil god, forcing Arthur to team up with his disgraced half-brother Orm (Patrick Wilson) to find and stop him.
But really, the plot doesn’t matter. Its only purpose is to get us from one loud, bombastic action scene to the next and maybe squeeze in a few drops from its dried-up ocean of character depth. That is, on the slim chance the film wants to take a breath for more than thirty seconds. If you were to look at the story outline on its surface, you’d find plenty of potential. But that surface is as deep as Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom is willing to go before banging its pots and pans in your face or spouting some meaningless babble that kinda sorta sets up the next set piece.
The pacing is so obnoxiously fast and leaves its characters so paper-thin that I couldn’t help but think about how much of the original cut was left in the ocean trench that is the cutting room floor. Characters who have rich histories with each other have the screen chemistry of people who just met, and our reintroductions to them and their reactions to familiar faces showing up are just as quick and insignificant. Kane suddenly has a legion of followers that do his bidding with no explanation. Critical, devastating events happen offscreen after a time skip that’s almost as destructive to the story as the One Year Later in 2015’s Fantastic Four, except this one happens much earlier.
But even if the cut scenes, if they exist, were restored, I don’t know how much better Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom would be. It still suffers from the first film’s tonal identity crisis, not knowing whether it wants to be goofy, operatic, suspenseful, or totally irreverent. Arthur’s “witty” dialogue still sounds like it was written for and by a 12-year-old, sucking out the charm that Jason Momoa is so clearly trying to bring to the role. Everyone else is doing the bare minimum to not be flat-out awful, with the sole exception of Patrick Wilson as Orm. He’s the only consistently good part of the film, nailing the character’s comedic timing, reactions to ludicrous moments, and shift to a more honorable attitude.
Though the story of Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom could have had promise, its core skeleton is still littered with comic book movie tropes and motifs that I have officially grown very sick of. Hordes of faceless mooks that aren’t really a threat because of main character invincibility. World-ending stakes that are just background noise and clearly won’t have any lasting consequences. Characters about to be killed but getting saved at the last second. The supposed main bad guy’s actions being influenced by some cursed object that channels another, darker force.
That last trope wouldn’t be so bad if it didn’t water down (I swear that one wasn’t intentional) Kane’s motivation of revenge and divert his plans in ways that don’t even help him accomplish that goal. He ultimately becomes just a tool for a much less interesting villain with much less interesting plans, and even his mental corruption isn’t that interesting or creepy to watch. Because that would require some focus on the psychology of his character, but we can’t do that because either director James Wan or Warner Bros. are apparently determined to prove Martin Scorsese right about comic book movies.
Even as cinematic junk food, Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom doesn’t taste good, because the film is often hideous to look at. The effects were often unconvincing in the first film, but the world’s designs and color scheme were at least vivid, imaginative, and wonderfully shot. Here, everything looks washed out (again, that one wasn’t on purpose) and muted, and even the exact same settings we saw in the first Aquaman have lost their sense of mythical scale and detail. If you’ve seen a big fantasy film, you’ve seen better versions of what Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom has to show you.
I was honestly amazed by how few action sequences stood out in any way, and I had to actively stop my eyes from glazing over in disinterest. There’s one dynamically shot fight between Arthur and Kane near the end, but the rest of the action is either disorienting or just plain dull. The CGI looks twice as fake as the first film’s, but without the latter’s fun cinematography to balance it out. When a comic book movie, or really any movie, is this lacking in substance, the biggest crime it can commit is not being at least well-crafted or visually interesting.
Since its debut with Man of Steel over ten years ago, the DCEU has gotten a lot of flak that I don’t think is always deserved. It’s had problems, but I’ve defended it from time to time and, for a few years, was even very pleased with where it was going. But in 2023, it’s spewed out some of the most mediocre, forgettable material that I’ve seen in the recent blockbuster landscape. Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom is the final film in the DCEU before it’s rebooted entirely, and it seems very apparent to me that the people in charge only cared about getting the movie done and chucking it out so the whole continuity can be over with.
If Warner Bros. really did have that mindset towards this and the year’s other DC films, that paints a very sad picture of where its head is at when it comes to its blockbusters in general. It sends the message that if a film isn’t getting a sequel and isn’t part of a universe that’s going to continue, then it’s not worth making as good as it can be. If Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom is exactly the film that the entire cast and crew wanted to make, then I can only say that their priorities clash with what I want as a viewer and leave it at that. But whatever the intentions were from anyone, this is one of the worst superhero movies I’ve ever seen. It’s nothing more than a hollow husk that represents everything wrong with big studio filmmaking and the comic book genre in its entirety.
Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom is now available to watch globally in theaters.