Aquaman battles Black Manta, once again, in Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom, which opens in cinemas worldwide over the Christmas holidays. This final installment in the DC Extended Universe had the chance to do its own thing, freed from the tethers of supporting a franchise, but is ultimately a listless and inconsequential retread of the first movie that underscores the faults of these films.
The first Aquaman was the DCEU’s biggest hit, and next to Wonder Woman, one of its best films. Thanks to returning director James Wan, Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom is similarly slick and generally well put-together (save for some unusually sub-par CGI), but ultimately sinks under the weight of its trivial script and rivals WW84 and Suicide Squad as a low point for the franchise.
Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom brings back Jason Momoa as Arthur Curry, no longer a brooding half-man, half-Atlantean, but now a loving father raising an infant son with wife Mera (Amber Heard) and grandpa Tom (Temuera Morrison). While this sequel takes an appropriately lighthearted approach to its superhero who talks to fish and rides on a giant seahorse, Momoa probably isn’t the best fit for the new interpretation, and the character comes off akin to the emasculated goofball Thor from the more recent Marvel films.
Despite suffering defeat in the first film, Black Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) is still seeking revenge on Aquaman for the death of his father. Now a Bond villain with limitless resource and deep-sea bases, he has discovered the tool that can help him exact said revenge: a age-old trident from the titular Lost Kingdom, a hellish nightmare frozen in time by Arthur’s Atlantean ancestors.
To prevent Black Manta from stealing the resources he needs to awaken the Lost Kingdom and simultaneously destroy destroy the Earth’s atmosphere, Aquaman has only one option: rival brother Orm (Patrick Wilson), who was imprisoned in the previous film and now needs to be broken out with the aid of a cephalopod (that’s octopus to us and bonehead Aquaman) in Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom‘s lone exciting sequence.
With Aquaman and Black Manta playing the same note from beginning to bitter end (their final moment is a particularly gutless punch), it’s Wilson’s Orm who comes closest to having a compelling characterization here. Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom manages a pulse during the buddy-adventure fish-out-of-water scenes between Wilson and Momoa, even if one can’t help but feel the actors would be better suited with their roles reversed.
Otherwise, Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom is a despairingly by-the-numbers retread of the previous film, with the titular superhero not only going up against the same baddie, but also facing similar (if less significant) political turmoil down in Atlantis. Nicole Kidman is back as Arthur’s mom, as is Dolph Lundgren as his military head, but the most interesting characters here are the octopus and a humanoid crab general.
Randall Park, too, gets a lot of screen time as Black Manta’s head scientist, but by the end of the film he’s just another face-in-the-crowd observer. His character was one whose crisis-of-conscience could have provided the film with some much-needed relatability, but Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom surgically removes any human interest from its narrative in the service of spectacle, and ends up with a lot of razzle-dazzle without any heart.
Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom is the third DCEU to release in 2023 after The Flash and Blue Beetle, and the franchise has offered fans diminishing returns as it empties its slate before James Gunn reboots everything starting with Superman: Legacy in mid-2025. After a year-and-a-half, maybe we’ll be ready to drop back in on this universe with renewed expectations… or maybe we’ll appreciate some time away from these superheroes.