Review: ‘Aquaman and The Lost Kingdom’ is a clumsy finale to the DCEU

Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom releases in theaters this weekend its journey isn’t smooth sailing. Instead, it’s a choppy ride that washes ashore to a jungle land as a frustratingly shallow disappointment. It’s a clumsy end to the DCEU and movie that scratches the surface of greatness, teasing with flashes of thematic intrigue, exciting stories, and brief surges of character chemistry that are swallowed by generic cliches and unfulfilled villainy. The movie sinks to a soggy end due to its broken promises. 

Please note, there are spoilers ahead for Aquaman and The Lost Kingdom.

A clumsy story and, message, and tone

Somewhere buried in the 100th set of notes from the powers that be is a good Aquaman and The Lost Kingdom movie. This one clumsily misses the mark, and it’s so frustrating. Jason Momoa returns as the titular Aquaman and Arthur Curry, a man grappling with the burden of both leadership and fatherhood, as well as loyalties to the land and the sea. The first Aquaman shined because it was so sincere and authentic, and this movie is not. This sequel has choppiness in story, lines, tone, and message that is a death sentence by committee. Even Momoa’s signature charisma and appeal is adrift in this movie’s narrative. 

You can almost feel where things were copied and pasted – whether it be a scene whose only purpose seems to advance the marketing efforts of Guinness or speeches that break the cardinal sin of storytelling with characters directly telling you things they’re supposed to show you. 

There are deep themes that the movie touches upon – environmentalism (hello, climate change!), leadership, brotherhood, and parenthood. But they’re so ham-handled that we never really see anything come together approaching a solid narrative. Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom is a giant tease.

A glimmer of a complex villain

Yahya Abdul-Mateen II is an incredible actor. He’s Tony-nominated for his work on Broadway in Topdog/Underdog, and he’s made his mark on films like The Trial of the Chicago 7. He was scary in Nia DaCosta’s Candyman; this is just a tiny sample of his work.

He deserved a better-developed villain in Aquaman and the Lost KingdomAbdul-Matteen II gave his absolute all to Manta, but there wasn’t enough on the page for the supervillain to feel like anything more than a caricature of his first outing in the 2018 Aquaman. The powers that be gave Manta an amazing comic-accurate suit that looked so freaking cool. My happiness over the comic fidelity is  soggy because of all the villainous potential that was left on the sea floor.

Manta is no egomaniac Lex Luthor

David Kane/Manta is motivated to avenge his mercenary father’s death. The love of family was so powerful and grounding as a villain in the first film – Manta is no egomaniac driven for power like Lex Luthor. He’s relatable and accessible because of that. As an audience, we can tap into what he’s feeling because, chances are, we’ve felt the human urge to avenge a family member who’s been wronged. 

At the end of the first Aquaman, Dr. Stephen Shin (internet favorite Randall Park, otherwise known as Jimmy Woo in the MCU) offers Kane a deal. We see that play out with a twist in this movie – Kane is now possessed by the black trident and is himself an instrument of another villain. He’s no longer relatable and made out to be a glorified, unsympathetic, murderous tool. 

The other villain, Groot’s transmogrified evil twin, King Kordax (Pilou Asbæk), is the ancient King Atlan’s brother. (Once again, the tendrils of a the family theme that could act as a tether for the story is right there…but out of reach.) Kordax is heating the planet for his nefarious goals and feels out of place in this movie. Having the dual villains (once again, something that DC has tried a ton) takes away from what could be a very compelling story with Manta. It’s a shame. 

Moments of good tease what could have been

There are individual moments of good in Aquaman and The Lost Kingdom, and they’re so frustrating because they tease what could have been an excellent movie. All of the elements are right there, but they never quite ascend to where they need to be to work cohesively. 

 Although this movie is allegedly the final movie in the DC Extended Universe (or was that Shazaam! Fury of the Gods? – who knows at this point), it doesn’t feel like an end. Yes, it is the moment where we see the actualization of Arthur’s growth – he’s finally content and has truly accepted his role as King. The end scene, where Aquaman speaks as a representative of his people to the United Nations, is also explicitly an invitation for more.  But based on what we know about Superman and the future of other DC properties, we know it is an empty invitation.  

Brotherly Buddy Moments

The standout moments of Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom are not when it is a superhero movie but when it is a family comedy centered around the royal brothers Arthur and Orm. Jason Momoa and Patrick Wilson have a ton of chemistry, and because of this, you can believe in their relationship. (Patrick Wilson seriously is the star of this film on so many levels. Aquaman and The Lost Kingdom makes me want to go back and watch everything in his filmography.)

The moments that they were on screen together, Aquaman and The Lost Kingdom, were fun, and as a viewer, I wanted to lean into the fun. The movie even calls it out, but it’s a very Loki and Thor vibe. Arthur and Orm had a believable rivalry in the first movie. Orm wanted the throne and saw Arthur as a threat. This relationship is the natural evolution from that – both men want the best thing for their Kingdom and are working together to achieve that. 

Arthur is moved by his mother Atlanna’s (Nicole Kidman) plea and by his changed perspective due to fatherhood. Again, this heart and sincerity is where the first Aquaman shined, and we needed more of it in this movie. This core relationship could have been enough to sustain an entire movie. Give me Arthur, Orm, and all the weird fauna as they quest together. 

Missing women under the sea

The women in Aquaman are powerful. Mera (Amber Heard) stood out in the first film, yet she barely gets any screen time in this film. Whether due to creative choices or other factors (like the reported on-set drama and well-covered off-set life), Mera’s diminished role unfortunately weakens the film’s emotional core. Mera is a mom, and her child has been kidnapped, yet the character’s reaction is ridiculously muted. Her absence leaves a noticeable gap in the story. It undercuts the potential for deeper exploration of themes like family, loyalty, and the power dynamics within Atlantis. Mera’s diminished presence in The Lost Kingdom represents a missed opportunity. And aside from one scene with her sons, Kidman’s Atlanta is similarly sidelined throughout the story. 

Great monster design and great music

Not everything in Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom is a shipwreck. Besides what’s been mentioned, the creature design is excellent and scary. The ancient ocean monster technology is a cross between the aliens in Independence Day and Doc Ock in Spiderman. Combined with a steampunk-esque sound design and good VFX, it’s frightful and cool.

The music and the score of Aquaman and The Lost Kingdom also deserve praise. Manta’s villainous theme is quite ominous and contrasts the highs in the rest of the film. Rupert Gregson-Williams has done a great job. 

Final thoughts on Aquaman and The Lost Kingdom

Aquaman and The Lost Kingdom is weighed down to the depths by a lack of fun. The elements are there for a great superhero film. But the right mixture isn’t, and as a result, the film suffers from a bad case of the bends. The good moments, especially the bromance between Arthur Curry/Aquaman, and Orm, are overshadowed by a lack of buoyancy in the rest of the movie. Check it out if you need something to do, but don’t rush to the theaters to watch this over Christmas. If you’re a completionist, wait till it’s streaming to close out the end of the DCEU. Or better yet, go rewatch the first Aquaman for a story with a ton of heart and excitement. 

Aquaman and The Lost Kingdom is in theaters

Aquaman and The Lost Kingdom will be in theaters on December 22. Visit the official website to learn how to buy tickets.

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