‘Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom’ Review: Arthur, Orm, and an Octopus Too

Aaron Neuwirth reviews Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom, the final installment of this version of the DC Universe as well as a fun enough sequel to 2018's Aquaman.
User Rating: 6

Acting as if it was necessary to rush to the finish line, James Wan’s breathlessly paced follow-up to the billion-dollar hit that was Aquaman may signal the end of the line for this iteration of the DC Universe, but it’s not without a gonzo amount of spectacle. Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom once again packs every frame with a ridiculous amount of visual splendor as we follow Jason Momoa’s bro-with-pathos take on the superhero who talks to fish. Is it fun? Sure. Does it have much to offer outside of an elaborate undersea adventure? Not really. How much does that matter? Well, as I said, the DCU is getting a reset after this, so take what you want out of this last hurrah for Arthur Curry and Co. in its current form.

Set several years after Arthur (Momoa) took the throne of Atlantis from his scheming half-brother, Orm (Patrick Wilson), he’s now a bored king who balances unengaging bureaucratic affairs with being a husband and father, and having the occasional skirmish with pirates. Meanwhile, David Kane, aka Black Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), is still seeking revenge against Aquaman for leaving his father to die. With help from Atlantis-obsessed marine biologist Stephen Shin (Randall Park), Kane finds a black trident that imbues him with the powers of a lost enemy of the other ocean kingdoms. With Kane now being much more powerful, Arthur’s only solution is to break Orm out of prison and team up with him to stop the possessed Manta from doing something drastic.

See Also: ‘The Marvels’ Review: Glowing Into The Final Frontier

While I’ve seen a superhero sequel rely on an uneasy alliance between half-siblings before, this film is less Thor: The Dark World and more The Mummy Returns. There seems to be such a reliance on the familiarity of the Aquaman universe that there’s barely any time to take stock of how wild it all is. So, rather than taking any time to get our feet wet, this film dives right in, repeating some beats of the original but keeping the action constantly moving, opening up the movie to exploring more reasons for sequences full of special effects. None of that is necessarily a complaint. I can’t say there’s a movie that looks nearly as visually remarkable in this way, this side of Avatar: The Way of Water. That said, the confines of a superhero movie do hold Wan back from equaling James Cameron’s unquestionable abilities as the champion blockbuster filmmaker.

Many of these DC films tend to be overflowing with characters, as there are so many potential directions. I understandably see the need to fill out all the side roles with notable actors, depending on what happens next. While there’s still an extended cast list in this movie, there seems to be perfunctory reasoning for each of them being around, with little done to add those extra bits of detail to establish further personality. Momoa and Wilson get the lion’s share of screen time and don’t suffer as a result. However, it’s easy to see the strings when Mera (Amber Heard) only shows up to save her husband in critical moments, Dolph Lundgren’s Nereus is there to agree or oppose big decisions, Temuera Morrison’s Tom Curry only has fatherly advice to offer, and Nicole Kidman’s Atlanna is primarily an exposition machine.

The previous film introduced us to Arthur’s parents by having Kidman eat fish from a bowl. Atlantis had more of a sense of wonder to it. Oh, and Julie Andrews showed up to play a giant crab monster. I’m not saying this movie doesn’t have a sense of weirdness (Torpo, the drum-playing octopus from the first film, apparently moonlights as a tactical operative, allowing him to tag along for the film’s second act). Still, it does feel a bit more on rails to pair this film down as much as possible to be only a little more than two hours. 2018’s Aquaman felt like a challenge met as far as delivering an epic sea adventure about a man coming into his own into the role he had always denied but was destined for. Here, Arthur is on more of a monster-of-the-week-type journey. It’s not the worst way to handle things, but I did feel a bit antsy about not getting enough “movie” in this movie.

Sadly, better time could have been spent with Abdul-Mateen. The actor does all he can with the role, but given how much time we spend watching his side of things, one would hope for more than a fairly one-note character who is reduced even further, given his possessed state. Oddly, Randall Park gets more time to shine in these sections of the film as he becomes conflicted by the heinous actions taken by his mercenary partner (note to self: don’t trust mercenaries).

Ultimately, it becomes notable that for an Aquaman sequel with so many undersea kingdoms to explore, we don’t actually meet many new characters, leaving things in a state that’s not all that evolved from where we last saw everyone. Sure, there’s one notable moment featuring a variety of sea creatures that feels the most like a side adventure from Star Wars as possible. Still, for the most part, this film seems fine settling in with the folks we already know and adjusting some of those relationships (mild spoiler: brothers learn to bond).

Does the film aim to go anywhere else with its ideas? Well, it expands on the environmentalist concerns of the first by having a plotline literally involving manufactured greenhouse gas emissions that are heavily affecting global warming concerns, but it’s not as if this is a nuanced approach or has much to say beyond, “Yeah, that’s bad.” Meanwhile, Arthur doesn’t have much of a chance to grow either. However, I’m still all for the fun Momoa is clearly having, which plays nicely against Wilson’s pessimistic, uptight handling of Orm.

With all of that said, the action is first-rate and executed in a manner that will impress those who know there’s more physical work involved in so much of the CG-enhanced spectacle than they may realize. Wan’s knack for visualizing elaborate set pieces once again pays off here, with cinematographer Don Burgess and the rest of the crew doing what’s needed to keep up with all the craziness on display. Whether or not the stakes of this film are meaningful enough to the viewer, I still have an appreciation for these richly conceived moments that convince me I’m watching superheroes on screen.

While Warner Bros. may have left Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom out to dry in terms of various rumors regarding the production, the delays that took place, and now having to sit as the final statement on this version of the DC Universe, Wan didn’t throw in the towel. While less of an accomplishment compared to the first, this still feels like a film full of effort from all involved to deliver a rousing enough adventure. The areas where it comes up lacking notwithstanding, I had fun with this brother-buddy action-comedy. I was even given a giant sea horse, a cocky octopus, and an evil volcano lair to appreciate in the process. The tide may have turned, but Arthur is still, “My man.”

Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom opens in theaters and IMAX on December 22, 2023.

6
Fair
Written by
Aaron Neuwirth is a movie fanatic and Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic from Orange County, California. He’s a member of the African American Film Critics Association, the Hollywood Critics Association, the Online Film Critics Society, and the Black Film Critics Circle. As an outgoing person who is always thrilled to discuss movies, he’s also a podcaster who has put far too many hours into published audio content associated with film and television. His work has been published at Variety, We Live Entertainment, Why So Blu, The Young Folks, Firstshowing.net, Screen Rant, and Hi-Def Ninja.

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