Film Review: Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom brings the DCEU to an end with a droplet rather than a splash

And just like that, the DCEU comes to a close with a droplet rather than the splash we were expecting a decade ago.

In 2013, when Man of Steel premiered, there was the promise of an exciting future of storytelling to be told for the variety of characters within the DC lore.  There was rousing, if controversial, casting decisions, there was no shortage of talented filmmakers on board to forward these narratives, and when everything aligned for whichever project (Wonder Woman, Birds of Prey, The Suicide Squad, for example) the promise of what could be was palpable.

But much like the franchise as a whole, James Wan‘s Aquaman sequel, Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom, never lifts off in the manner expected, or deserved.  Jason Momoa‘s enthusiasm for the character is evident, and the charming actor does his best to keep things afloat, but this lost voyage never finds its way, despite peppered possibilities.

Set a few years after the events of the original film, The Lost Kingdom places the duelling responsibilities of Momoa’s character at its centre.  On land, his Arthur Curry is a fresh father, having bore a child with Mera (Amber Heard), and learning fatherhood comes with slapstick complications; cue shots of the young tyke urinating in Arthur’s mouth.  Under the sea, as Aquaman, the King of Atlantis, he struggles with having such a position of power as he doesn’t appreciate answering to his council’s regulations; we all know Aqauman is the epitome of impulsion.

His roles as both both a father and as a king merge in a manner he wasn’t expecting though, when David Kane (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), a high seas mercenary whose father was killed by Aquaman, returns to the fray as Black Manta.  Powered by an Atlantean armoured suit, Black Manta is bent on avenging his father’s death, and in uncovering the mythical Black Trident, he threatens Arthur’s own bloodline and all he knew about Atlantis.

In Arthur’s own child being the target and Black Manta’s M.O. being to continually pollute the planet from the sea upwards, The Lost Kingdom does indeed have the ingredients to be an emotionally-charged adventure.  But, whether it’s because the 5-year break between this and the first film is too large a gap, or it can’t help but be tainted with the knowledge it’s closing out this embodiment of DCEU – for those unaware, director James Gunn is overhauling the entirety of the franchise, with a new variation of Superman arriving in 2025 – the concern for the stakes on hand never land in a manner that earns audience investment.

On its own accord, The Lost Kingdom is an average (at best) blockbuster-coded actioner that, quite bizarrely, doesn’t conjure enough set-pieces to act as a distraction for audiences who equate bigger to meaning better.  As a sequel to a knowingly fun comic book adventure piece, it drowns in comparison.  But, as stated, Momoa truly dives in headfirst to steer his wronged vessel right where he can, and when the story – which Momoa helped conceive with director Wan and writers David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick and Thomas Pa’a Sibbett – allows the actor and Patrick Wilson (returning as Arthur’s imprisoned half-brother, Orm) to bounce off each other and drive the film with their buddy-comedy mentality, The Lost Kingdom momentarily finds its groove.

Wilson’s Orm has a presence here that’s similar to what Heard’s Mera provided in the first film, reluctantly joining the rule-breaking Aquaman on whichever quest the Atlantean sees fit to risk life and limb for.  Orm having no real construct of real-world structure means there’s some fun to be had in Aquaman leading him astray, and when it allows Wilson to flex his action muscle, the film is all the better for it.  But, sadly, there’s only so much freedom Momoa and Wilson are able to run with, with the film seemingly unable to decide how much fun it wants to have and how seriously it should take itself.

On the mention of Heard, there’s a rabbit hole of rumours and off-set chatter regarding her position within the hierarchy of the production, but as it stands within The Lost Kingdom‘s finality, she’s underused when compared to the original, but utilised more than I suspect many will be expecting.  There was talk that her role was reduced due to both a perceived lack of chemistry between herself and Momoa and the fallout of her public divorce trial with Johnny Depp, but this was continually offset with the word that Mera’s presence in this story was always more limited.  Whatever the truth, Heard is sprinkled throughout, and whilst she doesn’t make much of an impact, the presence of herself and Nicole Kidman alone – the latter returning in glorious heroine mode as Arthur and Orm’s mother, Atlanna – is welcome in a story that’s dominated by male energy.

Given the underwhelming response to the majority of the DCEU’s entrants – this year alone, Shazam! Fury of the Gods, The Flash and Blue Beetle have all majorly underperformed at the box office – it’s unlikely that The Lost Kingdom will correct any course for audiences seemingly done with the DC leg.  The early announcement of the franchise overhaul certainly didn’t help with these films all feeling especially useless, but even aside from such, the quality speaks for itself, and Aquaman’s second story lacks overall.

There are isolated moments of charm and wit throughout, and the duo of Momoa (whose energy and movie-star wattage can’t be dimmed) and Wilson truly speak to what could have been, but if the first Aquaman was not one you warmed to, then The Lost Kingdom is surely an exploration you won’t find worth diving for.  And if you were a fan of the original (and a billion dollar box office haul says there were many), I’d suggest treading carefully and with tempered expectations.

TWO AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom is now screening in Australian theatres.

Peter Gray

Film critic with a penchant for Dwayne Johnson, Jason Momoa, Michelle Pfeiffer and horror movies, harbouring the desire to be a face of entertainment news.