Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom – Review

2023 is going to be looked at as a turning point year for the super hero movie genre.  The genre was undeniably the dominant force at the box office over the last decade, led by the unprecedented success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  Following Marvel’s lead, rival DC Comics began their own expansion of their cinematic presence with the creation of the DCEU.  And for several years, it was a mutually beneficial competition that looked to be unstoppable in creating big bucks for the studios.  For many years, especially in the later half of the 2010’s, putting out a super hero movie into theaters was almost guaranteed to make money.  What was especially surprising was how even the most obscure, B-list super heroes were succeeding at the box office.  A large part of this was the success of Marvel’s interwoven cinematic universe, which made every one of their movies, even the one’s with lesser know characters, essential to the over-arching narrative that they were building up.  For them, the culmination of all those story threads was the monumental team-up films under the Avengers banner.  For the DCEU, it was the Justice League that their universe building would culminate around.  This was very much a box office engine that was unlike anything else that Hollywood had seen before, and it seemed like there would be no end to that money train.  However, gravity does inevitably catch up, even with the most astronomical success stories.  This year, we saw the inevitable collapse of the once sure thing that was the super hero genre.  While it’s too early to say that the genre is dead, it certainly has stopped being a sure thing in the business now.  2023 was a year of staggering box office disappointments all around, but the super hero movies were the ones that suffered the most.  Even the mighty Marvel didn’t escape the implosion.  There were 8 super hero films put out into theaters this year, and only 2 could even be considered to be profitable; Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 (2023) and Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse (2023).  All the rest failed to justify their enormous budgets which in turn led to a catastrophic collapse across the board for the genre; some even considered to be among the biggest box office bombs of all time.

While Marvel is hurting with the low box office returns of Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania (2023) and The Marvels (2023), the story is even more dire for DC.  DC perhaps benefitted the most from the rising tide of the super hero genre of the 2010’s, as their movies saw a surge in success in the latter half of the decade.  The DCEU had a strong start on the back of the Superman film titled Man of Steel (2013), and they continually produced movies that grossed in the neighborhood of $300 million domestic for several years.  Perhaps the most surprising result was that it was neither Batman or Superman that achieved the highest grosses of this era, but rather Wonder Woman (2017) and Aquaman (2018) that ended up on top.  Because DC felt confident in competing with Marvel at the box office during this period, they began to greenlight movies for some of their lesser known characters, such as Shazam, Black Adam, and Blue Beetle.  But while box office was strong, the DCEU had one deficiency that prevented them from reaching the heights of Marvel.  One of the reasons why the DCEU is often nicknamed the Snyderverse is because of the filmmaker who helped launch the franchise from the beginning; Zack Snyder.  And like most of Snyder’s movies, the most common critique that the DCEU faced was that it was built on style and not substance.  DC rarely reached the same critical acclaims that Marvel enjoyed and over time that began to take it’s toll on the box office that the series enjoyed.  The DCEU was plagued with a lot of second guessing from the executives at the Warner Brothers offices that were bankrolling the whole venture.  This led to the especially messy shake-up that doomed the Justice League (2017) movie, and the residual turmoil soured the rest of the DCEU as a whole.  Since then, the only DC movies that have succeeded commercially and critically have been the ones not tied to the Extended Universe; 2019’s Joker and 2022’s The Batman.  The ultimate collapse began with the disappointing returns on Black Adam (2022), and with the shake-up of the Warner Brothers and Discovery merger, the writing was on the wall for the DCEU.  Unfortunately, they still had four films in the pipeline, set for a year where the audience no longer had interest in a dying franchise.  Thus, we got the back to back flops of Shazam: Fury of the Gods, The Flash, and Blue Beetle.  Only one movie is left of the now defunct DCEU, and the question remains if Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom can sink or swim?

Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom takes place a few years after the events of the last film.  Arthur Curry, aka Aquaman (Jason Mamoa) has taken up his birthright as the King of Atlantis, a powerful underwater kingdom unknown to most of the surface world.  He has found the job a bit tedious as he has learned that his powers are limited and kept in check by a council of high households, pretty much making him a figure head.  He desires to use his power as king to enact reforms to help his kingdom prosper, but at the same time he understands that taking power is not in his DNA, as that was the folly of his power hungry half-brother Orm (Patrick Wilson), who is now in prison for his crimes.  In the meantime, Arthur is balancing being king with living life on the surface world as a father.  Arthur Jr., barely a year old, lives on land with his grandfather Tom Curry (Temuera Morrison), and Arthur and his Queen Mera (Amber Heard) ensure their child is safe whenever they are away from their duties on the throne of Atlantis.  However, trouble is brewing in the ocean and on the surface world.  Rising global temperatures are creating chaotic storms above the waves, and is causing sickness in the sea life below.  The source of this imbalance is coming from the use of ancient sea tech discovered by Aquaman’s nemesis, Black Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II).  Black Manta is intentionally polluting the land, sea and air in order to melt the polar ice caps as a means of unleashing a dark evil onto the world.  And equipped with a dangerous magical trident, Manta is far stronger now than the last time Aquaman fought him.  In order to defeat Black Manta, Arthur needs the help of an old enemy who once used Manta’s power for his own ends; the fallen King Orm.  Arthur and Orm are now in a position where they have to have to put their differences aside in order to save the world together.  But, can past rivalry be forgiven so easily?  And can Aquaman still succeed against the new power that Black Manta wields that is unlike anything he has face before?

The whole team that worked on the last Aquaman returns for this sequel, including most of the returning cast, director James Wan and screenwriter David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick.  Considering that Aquaman (2018) is the highest grossing DCEU film of all time (the only one to gross over a billion worldwide), it makes sense that a sequel would be greenlit right away for the continuation of Aquaman’s stand alone franchise on the big screen.  But a lot has happened in between when the first Aquaman movie came out and now, and Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom’s release on the tail end of truly the worst year ever for the genre could not have come at a worst time.  It’s unfair for Wan, Mamoa and company to be the one’s given the task of closing out the DCEU, because it’s very clear that this particular movie was never intended to be the end point.  The decision by DC parent company Warner Brothers Discovery to cut their loses and start over from scratch has only happened within the last year.  As a result, audiences were all too aware that the DCEU no longer had a future beyond 2023, so interest in the ongoing narratives suddenly disappeared.  That’s why the box office for DC was so abysmally low this year, because there was no point to any of these movies now.  Still, it was possible for them to stand on their own as an entertaining movie.  Sadly, for many, that didn’t work either.  I myself enjoyed the charm of Shazam: Fury of the Gods enough to recommend it, and Blue Beetle has it’s strong points too.  But The Flash was a colossal mess of a movie that definitely spelled the doom that the DCEU was about to face, and sad to say, Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom just continues that downward trend.  With all things considered, Aquaman is not the worst thing that has come from the DCEU, but it’s too unremarkable to take the DCEU out with anything other than a whimper.  Considering where I myself come from, I was not much of an Aquaman fan to begin with, as I disliked the first film too.  If there is any positive thing to take, I’d say that Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom is just slightly better than the first film because it’s shorter and feels less bloated.

In general, I think Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom is a perfect distillation of all the things that have plagued the DCEU from the very beginning.  DCEU movies, for the most part, are heavy on spectacle but light on character.  The movies within the franchise can certainly look like they were made with the GDP of a small nation, but very rarely will you see any critic or fan praise the films for their richly textured characters.  The reason why Wonder Woman and Shazam (2019) were able to rise above the formula and win critical praise is because those films did a much better job at allowing us to understand why their heroes want to be heroes.  Wonder Woman has that wonderful moment where she declares “It’s what I’m going to do,” before she storms into No Man’s Land after being told that it’s not what they came there to do.  That is a quintessential hero moment, and it’s something that strangely feels absent from most of the DCEU movies, especially the Aquaman films. I was often frustrated with how aimless the first Aquaman was, as it tried to be too many different movies all in one, and in none of them do they ever make you care about Aquaman’s journey towards becoming a hero.  It’s strange that the best character building moments we ever get of Aquaman come from the Zack Snyder cut of Justice League; you know, the version that never made it into theaters.  There was enough flashy spectacle in the first Aquaman to make audiences forget how shallow the story was, but the same unfortunately cannot be said with this movie.  It becomes very clear watching Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom that there was little to no heart put into it.  I don’t know if everyone saw the writing on the wall or not, but the whole vibe of Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom is that it feels like a movie made out of obligation.  Everyone involved in the movie was under contract to make a sequel, but the circumstances surrounding the making of that sequel caused the whole thing to become irrelevant by the end.  So, we have a director and a cast pretty much just giving the bare minimum so that they can fulfill their contracts and move on.  There’s just this overarching “let’s get this over with” detachment to the whole movie, which I’m sure is going to feed into the already low expectations audiences have with this movie.  The sad thing is, there are pieces in the narrative, had they been nurtured under a different environment , that could have contributed to a much better movie overall.

The movie very much rests on the shoulders of the cast, because it certainly gets nothing from the story.  And even there, we have a mixed bag.  The strength of the Aquaman series, and honestly the DCEU in general, has been the perfect casting of Jason Mamoa as the character.  Mamoa can carry so much of the movie just from his charming presence on screen alone.  Out of all the Justice League characters we’ve seen over the last decade, Mamoa’s Aquaman is really the only one with a distinct personality.  Despite so many good actors cast in the roles, only Jason Mamoa has been able to feel like he belongs in the role, and that no one could do it better.  And thanks to that ability to feel comfortable in the role, he’s able to make Aquaman fun to watch even when he’s horribly written, which happens a lot in the DCEU.  The same applies here as well, because while the script gives him almost nothing to work with, Mamoa still is able to play the character affably enough to make you smile when he’s on screen.  Another character who rises above the bland writing is Black Manta.  While the plot involving the character in this movie is pretty convoluted, Yahya Abdul-Mateen still gives him an effectively menacing presence that does work for the most part.  Kudos to the character design team to make the Black Manta helmet look as cool as it does in this movie; which is admittedly difficult to do given it’s cartoonish origins with those giant bug eyes.  There’s also some nice sincere moments with Temuera Morrison as Tom Curry, giving the movie a much needed earthbound character to help deliver some essential heart into the movie.  Sadly, very few other actors stand out.  Amber Heard and Nicole Kidman, two actresses with very important roles in the first film have barely anything to do here.  And Patrick Wilson is even more wooden in the role of Orm here than he did in the first movie.  He’s required to work a lot more with Jason Mamoa in this movie in a sort-of “buddy cop” way, and it falls flat because neither actor has chemistry with each other.     Mamoa’s charm on screen can go a long way, but there’s only so much heavy lifting he can do, and sadly most of the movie squanders the best efforts that he makes to get you to care about Aquaman’s story.

Another aspect of the low effort in this movie is the general way that the movie looks.  I hope that audiences are fine with looking at actors composited into CGI environments, because there is a lot of that in this movie.  To be fair, there really was very little choice in that manner, considering how much of the movie takes place underwater.  There are touches of decent CGI work in the movie, such as in how the characters’ hair is animated in the underwater scenes to give them a weightless flow.  But for the most part, you’re going to be looking at a lot of unrealistic looking fight scenes that are too cartoonish to ever be grounded in reality.  Much of the action is buried underneath too much visual mayhem to ever give the audience a grasp on the scenes they are watching.  The only action moments that work are the ones where Aquaman and Black Manta are dueling one on one, because it’s the only time where the movie isn’t relying on any trickery to liven up the scene.  As this year has proven, audiences are tired of action scenes loaded up with excessive CGI effects.  Movies like John Wick have shown that in camera stunt work is what audiences are finding more impressive these days.  This is a problem that really is plaguing super hero movies in general, and Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom is just the latest example of it.  The genre has been dying because the market has been flooded with too many movies that all look and feel the same.  And what’s worse is that the budgets for these movies have ballooned to unsustainable levels.  A decade ago, a super hero movie costing over $200 million was indicative of a major event.  Now, it has become the norm, and it’s costing the studios too much.  That’s why we’ve seen a sudden re-assessing of the genre as a whole this year, with even Marvel starting to second guess their priorities.  It’s clear that Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom was more of a symptom of an already ailing industry, and not nearly the worst offender.  But, considering that it is the final note on this horrendous year, it’s probably going to also be the movie that most people point to as the poster child for everything wrong with the super hero genre as a whole.

As I stated before, Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom is certainly bad on many counts, but it’s not by any means the worst we’ve ever seen from the genre.  By being such a low effort this time around, I think it has fewer faults than the first film.  It doesn’t have much to offer, therefore it didn’t have far to fall from my already low expectations.  In the end, I think that it’s just going to stand as a minor footnote of a film in the greater picture of the super hero genre as a whole, and I think that’s the best that can be said for it.  Better to be remembered as a minor failure than a colossal one.  Sadly, the fact that this is the movie that the DCEU goes out on is likely to bode poorly for the film in the long run.  I think it’s unfair to have put so much weight upon the shoulders of this movie that it clearly was not intended to hold.  James Wan and his team never intended to be the ones to write the final chapter of the DCEU.  They just wanted to keep Aquaman’s story going strong, but other circumstances got in the way.  The fact that they got any movie completed and released at all is it’s own kind of triumph.  But, what it certainly shows is that there needs to be a clear change in the direction of the super hero genre as a whole.  DC is certainly doing it’s part, re-launching their cinematic universe with the guidance of filmmaker James Gunn at the helm.  Marvel is also slowing things down to re-organize, with only Deadpool 3 being their sole film release in the next year.  Despite the best efforts of a lot of good filmmakers and actors, the DCEU was always handicapped by a lack of direction and interference from the studio, so it’s best that it be put to rest.  It’s just too bad that Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom is such a minor film to go out on.  I should note that even though 2023 was the year of super hero movies bombing at the box office, it doesn’t also mean that each of those movies was terrible either.  I strongly recommended the films Shazam: Fury of the Gods and The Marvels as both of them were genuinely a lot of fun to watch, and Blue Beetle had a lot of charm as well despite being a bit cliché.  Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania and The Flash on the other hand were deserving of their box office failure, and Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom falls closer to that camp as well, though it’s fall feels less steep than the others.  If you were a fan of the first Aquaman, you might enjoy it well enough, and it does benefit from being less cluttered than the original, but that’s about all the praise I can give it.  Otherwise, it and now the entirety of the DCEU, sleeps with the fishes.

Rating: 6.5/10