After all the reshooting, rebooting, and release date rejiggering, right as 2023 comes to a close, James Wan’s Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom is finally out. The behind-the-scenes story of the movie has been full of intrigue. Stuff had to be reshot to put Ben Affleck in it, then reshot to take him out. The high-profile Amber Heard trial means she probably had several scenes cut. The movie moved from release date to release date. In the midst of all this, a company-wide relaunch means Aquaman 2 is the unplanned ending to the entire DCEU. With all of that, you’d hope the movie was a trainwreck, or better yet, a triumph. It’s neither.
It’s a very odd place in which I find myself when it comes to this review. As with most films I review, I try to approach the movie on its own merits first and foremost. Then, if applicable, I think about the greater place in its respective franchise or cinematic universe. With Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom, I can’t help but think about it in terms of the strange, uneven, and ultimately failed endeavor that was the DC Extended Universe. For every unexpected success—Wonder Woman and the first Aquaman—we had a bevy of bloated, po-faced attempts to ape the Marvel model. It was a cinematic universe without a clear vision, ethos, tone, or level of quality.
Aquaman made an ungodly amount of money in 2018, which surprised literally everyone. Jason Momoa’s charisma, the vibrant Atlantean vistas, and James Wan’s innovative and frenetic action sequences all worked in its favor. I will say this for both that movie and its sequel: they remain gleefully unrelated to the other DCEU movies. Sure, Arthur Curry appears in other DCEU products, but none of that infiltrates his story.
This movie finds Arthur and Mera (Heard) married and with a newborn baby. He’s finding the business of ruling Atlantis not everything it’s cracked up to be. He spends most (or all) of his evenings drinking beer at his dad (Temuera Morrison)’s lighthouse. Unfortunately, David Kane, a.k.a. Black Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) still wants revenge from what happened in the first movie. To that end, he has found a mystical black trident which gives him terrible powers. It also affords him knowledge of where to find a long-buried fuel source. That ore causes the Earth to overheat, ruining the surface environment and poisoning the underwater inhabitants. If he succeeds, it’ll free a dormant army of the dead. It’s bad, is what I’m saying.
In order to fight Manta, Arthur will need the help of his half-brother Orm (Patrick Wilson), who has been imprisoned since the events of the first movie. Can the unlikely family put aside their differences for the good of the planet? Oh, also Randall Park is here as a scientist under Manta’s employ who very quickly decides he doesn’t want to be involved but can’t leave. Park’s Dr. Shin gets a whole lot of screentime, more even than Black Manta, and certainly more than either Mera or Nicole Kidman’s Atlanna.
The biggest issue with the movie is you can see all the fingers in the pot. Arthur has a baby, but the baby only matters for the plot. Most of the theming of the first movie—family, duty, romance—take a backseat to lofty environmental messaging, which itself feels pretty tacked on. Mera as a character only exists to get Arthur out of trouble at the last second. The Orm-Arthur relationship is the most fleshed out in the movie, but it isn’t set up at all in the early part of the movie. And Manta is a half-note villain who doesn’t even get to be his own person because a ghost monster has him in a thrall.
Who knows how much the actual plot changed during the many years of production and post-production? As with way too many of these movies, even if you hadn’t heard of all the studio issues, you’d be able to tell something was off. I didn’t love the first Aquaman movie but at least it felt of a piece with itself. All of Momoa’s frat-dude charm here feels oddly out of step with the rest of the movie, but the movie doesn’t even comment on it. He doesn’t succeed or fail because of that, he doesn’t grow or change. And because nothing really resonates, the humor doesn’t feel earned.
Ultimately, who cares? I don’t want to keep kicking this movie, or this franchise, when it’s down. Wan, Momoa, and the rest of the crew have been put in a truly unenviable position. Most of us know this is the end of the franchise, there will be no more Momoa as Aquaman. (Caveat: unless this movie somehow makes bank the way the first one did.) This isn’t the worst movie in the franchise by a longshot. It’s not even the worst DCEU movie to come out this calendar year. It’s simply the last one.
Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom is the most rare of movies: a franchise entry released with no hope of furthering a franchise. DC movies need a clean break, and it just stinks for everyone involved they announced the clean break with four more movies on the horizon. It’s enjoyable enough, it has a few decent action sequences. If you want more Aquaman, go see it. At least it has a CGI seahorse.
Kyle Anderson is the Senior Editor for Nerdist. He hosts the weekly pop culture deep-dive podcast Laser Focus. You can find his film and TV reviews here. Follow him on Instagram and Letterboxd.