Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom, the latest entry in the grotesquely oversized superhero genre that has taken over Hollywood, is purportedly the last in the DC Comics Cinematic Universe. Praise the Lord, including that of the Seven Seas.
Jason Momoa once again stars as the titular amphibian, Arthur Curry/Aquaman, in a quest to save the world from an overly ambitious bad guy with unlikely allies. The story is so trite it is difficult to describe. By choking the last gasps of any creative air in this movie genre, it showcases unambiguously why it is time for our heroic friends to take a years-long cinematic breather.
Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom founders from its very title. Wasn’t Atlantis, the Kingdom over which Curry is seen reigning at the end of the first film, the lost kingdom? It turns out, we find out much later, that the titular fiefdom is another one lost underground, called Necrus, a not subtle hint about the (not) living state of its former inhabitants.
Having deposed his brother Orm (Patrick Wilson), Curry and his wife Mera (Amber Heard, almost entirely sidelined), live the everyday ennui of kinging under water, while enjoying the life of mortals with a young baby above ground. That is until an invasion of the kingdom for a natural resource called “orichalchum” forces Curry to chase a nemesis pirate from the first film, fully evil this time, known as Black Manta (Yayha Abdul-Mateen II). This requires him to enlist the help of his imprisoned mother, Queen Atlanna (Nicole Kidman).
This outline of the story should show you the next way in which Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom sinks under the weight of its own lack of originality. A superhero king who has to make nice with his brother? Really? It has been done—repeatedly–and no amount of amusing self-awareness from the characters can wash away this cardinal sin. Nor is this outline the only thing that will seem familiar. An abbreviated scene in an underground canteen full of odd creatures, including a monstrous band and a Jabba The Hutt-like mafioso villain, will also evoke old—literally old—science fiction movies. “King Fish” is his remarkably unoriginal name, courtesy of a script by David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick, as the underwater cherry on top.
The script itself, also wrecks itself quickly. The cringeworthy one-liners are as plentiful as a school of fish, so much so that one has to resort to writing them down. To have such distinguished actors as Wilson and Kidman intoning fortune cookie-like aphorisms like “Things don’t always go as planned,” “You do the right thing when doing the wrong thing is so much easier,” and “If you lead, Atlantis will follow,” shows that there are no depths that his overtired genre will not plumb. Enough is enough, folks.
The one thing that these movies can generally be good for—eye-popping effects, exciting action sequences, creative fight scenes—are also entirely absent. From the very beginning, it is not clear if we are watching real actors being thrown around by pirates or by the muscular Momoa, or if it is all just CGI. At some point, you see the face of Kidman and others just floating about the screen, surrounded entirely by blurry underwater effects that make the action impossible to follow, and it is not even clear if the actors’ faces are themselves real or drawn up. Rather than provide excitement, these vignettes of action, jumping from one little adventure to the next in search of a final confrontation with a final bad guy, simple seem stitched together lazily and perfunctorily.
Worst of absolute all, the story itself lacks any semblance of emotional punch until the last act. Aquaman did not want to be king, but he goes wrecking a whole host of strange underwater creatures to save the kingdom from a foe whose designs are akin to accelerating global warming. None of it is compelling until the villains get a hold of his family, particularly his little one. This, too, is not original, but at least it gives the film’s story some more relatable stakes. Mera, submerged for the entire film thus far, reemerges right in the nick of time to provide the film with some emotional depth for its last act. But it’s too little, too late. Simply put—there is no reason whatsoever to bother before that.
As the credits prepare to roll, Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom prepare to float yet another half-baked idea, one that is also (unsurprisingly) painfully familiar as a superhero trope. The notion is that if we put aside our differences, we will be better for it. It is easy to fear those who are different than you, but just give them a chance—eat hamburgers if you’ve never heard of them!—and you will discover a great new world. As a bonus, if we do all this, we will save the planet from global warming.
What? Where did any of these panaceas come from? Does Hollywood really think that lowly of us? It is almost as if the script had been washed away and the filmmakers had just decided to close the story with a message they found floating in a bottle.
With nothing at all to add to a genre that needs no more entries, with little to offer in the way of entertainment, this film may very well send an entire industry to a watery grave. To copy one of the many grotesque lines from this film’s script, it is time to “put a hook in it.”
Awards Potential: None
Box Office Potential: Middle to high
Renewability: None, if you believe the studio
Overall Score: D-
Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom will be released by Warner Bros. Pictures in the U.S. on December 22, 2023
Studio: Warner Bros. Pictures
Principal Cast: Jason Momoa, Amber Heard, Nicole Kidman, Patrick Wilson, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Randall Park.
Director: James Wan
Screenwriter: David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick
Producers: Peter Safran, James Wan, Rob Cowan
DP: Don Burgess
Production Design: Bill Brzeski
Costume Design: Richard Sale
Editor: Kirk Morri
Score: Rupert Gregson-Williams