The year of our Lord 2023 A.D. (C.E.) has not been kind to DC’s big-screen comic-book adaptations. Between the widely reported news of the DCEU’s (DC Extended Universe) demise as an interwoven franchise, a divisive mega-merger between Discovery and Warner Bros., and a new creative team of James Gunn and Peter Safran controlling this year’s DCEU releases (e.g. The Flash) audiences have recognized the increasingly diminishing returns involved and responded accordingly (i.e. negatively). They’re but throwing up their hands in collective frustration, and merited (Shazam: Fury of the Gods) or not (Blue Beetle), deciding to sit them out entirely.
This inevitably brings us to the latest — and last — chapter in the DCEU saga, Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom, the belated sequel to 2018’s mega-hit, Aquaman. Once again directed by James Wan (Malignant), Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom initially finds Arthur Curry / Aquaman (Jason Momoa) barely balancing the demands of fatherhood to a newborn, the domestic bliss with Mera (Amber Heard), and with leading the undersea kingdom of Atlantis as the rightful heir to the throne and monarch. Now that Atlantis’s ex-ruler Orm Marius / Ocean Master (Patrick Wilson), a righteous eco-warrior who is also Aquaman’s half-brother, has been permanently exiled to prison, the undersea kingdom enjoys a measure of peace, safety, and stability.
Aquaman’s backup foe, David Kane / Black Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), though, does. Quickly defeated twice by Aquaman in the previous installment, the revenge-minded Kane has learned from previous mistakes. Kane has levelled up, repairing and upgrading his Atlantean armour and equipment to make him Aquaman’s physical equal. He’s also acquired the powerful Black Trident, which is the Atlantean equivalent of Sauron’s ring from The Lord of the Rings. The dark magic-powered Black Trident imbues its holder with vast, destructive powers while corrupting their heart and mind.
With the Black Trident-controlled Kane putting a poorly defined and clumsy plan into play, accelerating climate change into a global crisis, Aquaman makes a narratively unjustifiable decision to break Orm free from prison because he’s the only Atlantean who might be able to help Aquaman stop Black Manta. Cue a segue to the only real land-based set piece involving skeletal guards, monstrous mounts, and a genetically engineered cephalopod nicknamed Topo. Based on his limited time onscreen, it’s clear that (a) Topo is a star and (b) deserves his/her/its own spinoff.
Given away in all the promo materials, Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom all but dispenses with the other supporting characters to turn the sequel into the Aquaman and Orm Power Hour (aka Bosom Brothers). Not surprisingly, that means Mera and Aquaman and Orm’s mother, Atlanna (Nicole Kidman), are left in the rearview. She appears once or twice as needed to push the story forward whenever it goes into neutral. With the fast food-obsessed Aquaman in dude-bro mood, that leaves Orm as the proverbial straight man, doing double-take after double-take at whatever non-sequitur escapes Aquaman’s mouth. It’s not immediately tiresome, but with an undercooked script credited to David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick (Momoa received a story credit), painfully predictable drama, occasionally cringe-worthy jokes, and sleep-inducing tedium follow soon thereafter.
From there, it’s just a hop, skip, and a dive to the swim to Kane’s marvellous, steampunk-flavoured and Captain Nemo-inspired lair inside a volcano. It’s more than enough for audiences to feel like they’ve seen this superhero film before — because they have, countless times — and wonder where it all went wrong. Aquaman leaves one asking when and why did bland, indigestible corporate superhero products became the norm.
Returning for the second and last time to Aquaman and his mythos, Wan directs everything here with a combination of the rigorous efficiency, economy, and competency typical of early 21st-century superhero filmmaking. It’s rare for anything approaching a distinct visual style to emerge from the screen. However, as with the first entry, Wan’s lifelong obsession with monsters in every form, shape, and size shifts into the foreground when the fellowship of the trident find themselves confronted with an army of undead ghouls and misshapen monsters straight of H.P. Lovecraft. For a moment, however brief, it’s almost enough to applaud Wan’s Sisyphean efforts to turn Aquaman’s second go-around into a coherent, compelling superhero entry.
Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom opens Friday, December 22nd