Cookies help us deliver our Services. By using our Services, you agree to our use of cookies. Learn More.

Aquaman And The Lost Kingdom Review: Soggy Sequel That Sinks Without A Trace

  • The visual effects are, at the very least, spectacular
  • It brings the DCEU to an end, and trust me, that will feel like a relief
  • The cast seems completely unengaged
  • Clumsily tackles real-world themes
  • Every single attempt at humor falls flat

At one point during the first "Aquaman," a Eurodance remix of Toto's "Africa" — complete with rap by Mr. Worldwide himself, Pitbull — blasts over the soundtrack during a montage. It's a deeply cringe-inducing moment, but also one that helped to effectively signal in a new era for the big-screen DCEU; the grittiness that characterized the works of Christopher Nolan and Zack Snyder had been replaced with a sincere cheesiness that stood out next to Marvel Studios' more self-consciously ironic crowd pleasers.

Audiences began waning for DC during the Snyder era, with the common complaint being that the need to go "dark" only led people further into the arms of the MCU's carefully constructed escapism. "Aquaman" went further than Marvel did in embracing the inherent silliness of the source material and was rewarded by becoming the highest-grossing DC film of all time, a title that it still holds to this day. But that novelty — a fun DC movie, devoid of any self-imposed grit — could only remain a novelty for so long. And in a year where superhero fatigue has truly kicked in, it's certainly not enough to make people care.

A victim of superhero fatigue

All year long, rumors have circled "Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom" as being the final nail in the genre's coffin; reports of poor test screenings, claims of several rounds of reshoots to both add in and remove more famous DC heroes (none of whom appear in this final cut), and a half-hearted marketing campaign all seemed to confirm the worst. The reality is different. The "Aquaman" sequel isn't a disaster because it shows any signs of wear and tear — instead, this generic but largely functional tale suffers due to everybody onscreen clearly assuming this is the end of the road, all resigned to failure even as they're shooting it. James Gunn and Peter Safran may be scrapping the DCEU and starting again from scratch, but it's strange to see a film that's already accepted this fate, devoid of any signs of life that would make the powers that be reconsider their decision.

Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa) is now the king of Atlantis — and he absolutely hates it. After taking the throne from his tyrannical brother, Orm (Patrick Wilson), he now struggles to balance a life in the ocean with one on land, but that all changes when Black Manta (Yahya Abdul Mateen II) poses a threat so grave that he has no choice but to step up. It certainly doesn't help that he's led human scientists (led by Randall Park) to their hidden world, determined to strip it of energy. You see, the survival of Atlantis requires the destruction of the Black Trident he holds, an object that yields a force so evil that it's only furthering the catastrophic effects of climate change on the underwater kingdom. Arthur can't stop this alone, so he sets out to free his brother — who, thanks to convenient screenwriting, he makes nice with almost immediately after they're reintroduced.

My argument as to why superhero fatigue has taken hold isn't entirely due to the oversaturation of the genre, but because caped crusader movies seldom seem to care about the fates of those on the planet they're fighting to save. On paper, "Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom" appears to address this, connecting its far-flung aquatic empire with very real concerns about climate change on the surface. Their threat is the same one we face, and making that a critical plot point should give this DC sequel an urgency shared by no other superhero movie this year. Instead, the fate of humanity remains a mere concept, with the Council of Atlantis' moral concerns about working with mankind to counter this threat not given any room to breathe.

It's not like the film takes place entirely underwater, but the "surface world" enclaves that Arthur and Orm travel to are far removed from civilization — the only word about what's going on over there comes in the form of heavy-handed news broadcasts about endless freak weather incidents. The world our heroes are attempting to save never truly comes into focus, and all the human drama revolves around the control of the underwater kingdom, discussed largely through passionless exposition; it's easy to check out when there's nothing tangible to hold onto.

Well-made mediocrity

Earlier this year, I was one of the few critics to give a positive review to "Shazam: Fury of the Gods," and if nothing else, this "Aquaman" sequel served to affirm my decision there. In a film so devoid of thought toward the wider human cost of its plot, it's hard not to look back more fondly toward a blockbuster rooted in genuine character anxieties, one that actually cares about the people in the city its heroes are saving. I'm not sure "Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom" even cares about Atlantis, let alone the climate-ravaged surface world.

While the performances are either checked-out or incoherent compared to prior characterizations — Jason Momoa now bafflingly plays Arthur Curry like a man-child instead of a surfer bro, solely obsessed with drinking Guinness, eating burgers, and not much else — the same can't be said of James Wan's work behind the camera. He still excels at single-take action sequences, and his VFX team handily avoids the uncanny valley when having digital creations converse with actors. There is enough filmmaking craft on display to remind us that Wan's abilities aren't solely restricted to the horror genre. Admittedly, like Sam Raimi and Peter Jackson before him, he does make those ghoulish directorial instincts apparent where possible, but he doesn't weave in his nightmarish imagery with quite as much care as they did in their respective blockbuster franchises. Certain sequences have clearly been engineered to function as "jump scares," for example, even though this movie is far tamer than his other work. His horror bonafides are slightly different from those filmmakers', not least because comedy was largely absent from his earlier work whereas it helped drive theirs; Wan still can't make those two genres work in tandem here, two films into the franchise.

Speaking of the comedy, Wan doesn't just pause for jump scares that never come, but he does it for laughter too. Arthur and Orm's sibling relationship is characterized by them constantly bickering over everything — but without any punchlines that could help take this odd couple archetype to the next level. Wan seems to think that just pausing after one describes the other as having a "tight butthole" is a joke in and of itself, and the silence from my audience for the three seconds afterward was a deeply painful experience. None of the comedy feels particularly fresh either — the opening montage contrasting his life underwater and on the surface, unimaginatively scored to "Born to Be Wild," tries to get comedic mileage out of Arthur's baby son peeing on his face while his nappy gets changed. It's not funny the first time, and it doesn't start getting funny when it's repeated a minute later, either. Even the way the movie revisits scenes people found amusing in the first doesn't seem to understand what made them funny in the first place. Most notably, the drumming octopus is back and briefly becomes a sidekick. We don't see him play the drums once.

The biggest surprise is that, after rumors that a major disaster was imminent all year, "Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom" is the worst kind of bad movie; both unengaged and unengaging, made with enough clear skill to make you feel genuinely sorry for the director tasked with finding any signs of life within his cast. Everybody expected the DCEU to go out with a deeply embarrassing bang. It barely let out a whimper.

"Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom" swims into theaters on December 22.