“Director James Wan's Aquaman sequel isn't particularly good or memorable, but it is a striking, strangely admirable slice of superhero entertainment.”
- James Wan's uninhibited, go-for broke direction
- Jason Momoa and Patrick Wilson's infectious chemistry
- A clunky, exposition-ridden script
- A by-the-numbers plot
- A cast of uninteresting, underdeveloped supporting characters
James Wan has made a lot of strange films, but none more peculiar than Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom. The new, purportedly final installment in the DCEU, is a gaudy, trashy comic book spectacle — a technicolor curio of exhilarating action and mind-numbing plotting. Due to to all the recent regime changes at Warner Bros., the film is doomed to be forgotten and left behind. Its viewers have been told in advance that what they’re about to see doesn’t matter. That’s a strange fate to befall a movie like Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom, a sequel to a 2018 blockbuster that earned over $1 billion at the box office, but here we are.
There’s a knowingness coursing through the film, though, an awareness that what is happening on-screen is mostly nonsense and of little consequence. It’s as if Wan knew all along that he was strapped to a sinking ship. Rather than phoning it in, he chose to crank the volume all the way up, turn on a playlist of Steppenwolf’s greatest hits, and make a film that is so brazenly goofy and overstuffed that watching it feels a bit like going on a nightlong bender with its beer-chugging, high-fiving lead (played once again with unreserved intensity by Jason Momoa). You’re not sure whether you’re even enjoying yourself most of the time, and you definitely don’t remember it all, but there are moments when you’re more than happy to be taken along for the ride.
We’re informed in Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom’s opening minutes that quite a lot has changed for Arthur Curry (Momoa) since the last time we saw him. For starters, he and his paramour, Mera (Amber Heard), have not only gotten married, but she’s recently given birth to a young son who keeps them up at all hours of the night and, just like his old man, gets a kick out of talking to fish. After defeating his half-brother Orm (Patrick Wilson), at the end of 2018’s Aquaman, Arthur has also become the full-time King of Atlantis, a job that he takes seriously, but feels he’s no good at, given his increasing frustration over the immovable nature of his underwater nation’s political system. Life’s never been better for Arthur, but as is the case with every new parent, he’s also losing his mind a little.
His overwhelming, chaotic routine is upended when his old foe, David Kane/Black Manta (an appropriately menacing Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), unleashes a devastating attack on Atlantis using a collection of advanced, strange weapons, including a mysterious, powerful black trident. When Arthur realizes that Kane intends to melt the world’s remaining ice caps and release a long-lost source of dangerous black magic just to get his long-awaited vengeance on him, the King of Atlantis is forced to break his half-brother out of prison and ask for his help in taking down his tiresome foe. What follows is partly a buddy comedy about a pair of distant brothers slowly coming together and partly a by-the-numbers, world-ending superhero adventure that is overflowing with more uninteresting bits of lore than anyone, including Wan, knows what to do with.
David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick’s script doesn’t handle any of Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom’s necessary exposition dumps or dramatic beats with much grace or elegance. It frequently falls back on forced lines of voice-over dialogue to explain even the most basic aspects of its plot, and its first act is a jumbled-together collection of half-starts, flashbacks, and montages that exist solely to set the stage for its actual story. Clocking in at 124 minutes, the film is leaner than most other superhero movie sequels, but it’s not hard to imagine a version of it that was 20 minutes shorter and more evenly paced throughout. As it is, the Aquaman sequel stops just short of seriously overstaying its welcome.
Behind the camera, Wan tries to make up for the shortcomings of his film’s script with an uninhibited, relentless visual style. None of the blockbuster’s set pieces rise to the same heights as the rooftop battle from 2018’s Aquaman, but its action sequences are constructed with a more infectiously deranged energy than you typically see in modern superhero movies. Orm and Arthur’s second-act infiltration of Black Manta’s secret island factory features enough oversized bugs and instances of colorful sci-fi invention to feel like it was ripped from the pages of a Jules Verne story. Later, when the duo lays siege to the factory, they end up in a well-staged battle with a tentacled machine that calls to mind genre classics like The Incredibles and H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds.
Wan’s desire to pack as much life into every frame as he can doesn’t always work in his favor. A climactic trident versus trident battle between Momoa’s Arthur and Abdul-Mateen’s David, for instance, is blocked and sped up in a way that’s meant to make viewers’ hearts race, but instead feels like an out-of-place video game quick-time event. For the most part, though, Wan pulls off something of a miracle in Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom. The filmmaker leans all the way into the CGI-influenced, cartoonish aesthetic of the first Aquaman — delivering a sequel that is brimming with vibrantly rendered lands and characters. One flashback to an ancient, necromantic Atlantean kingdom feels like a delightfully trashy homage to Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. A chase through Atlantis’ underwater markets, meanwhile, is visually and rhythmically reminiscent of the Coruscant chase from George Lucas’ Attack of the Clones.
As disparate as all of these references may be, they make sense in a film like Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom, which pulses with a sense of reckless abandon that’s hard to come by in the 21st-century Hollywood blockbuster world. Wan’s sense of humor is obvious and his visual style isn’t so much artful as it is muscular, but it’s those two qualities that make him the right director to tackle a film about a sincerely goofy, burly hero like Momoa’s Arthur Curry.
Among the film’s cast, Nicole Kidman, Randall Park, and Dolph Lundgren all seem a bit stranded and lost, unaware of what exactly the purpose of their roles is in Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom. Heard, Wilson, and Momoa fare better, with the latter two, in particular, establishing a likable, if thematically obvious bond between their estranged Atlantean half-siblings. The film picks up considerably once Orm and Arthur have actually joined forces, and Wilson proves to be the perfect straight-faced foil to Momoa’s relentlessly jovial hero.
They, like Wan, seem perfectly aware of what kind of a film they’re making: a superhero blockbuster that isn’t particularly good, tasteful, or memorable. but is unhinged and striking enough to still somehow seem worthwhile. It’s a film that manages to stay high on its own vibes, even as both it and its franchise finally take on more water than they’re capable of holding.
Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom is now playing in theaters.
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