by Philip Price
Director: James Wan
Starring: Jason Momoa, Patrick Wilson & Yahya Abdul-Mateen II
Rated: PG-13 (sci-fi violence and some language)
Runtime: 2 hours & 4 minutes
The irony of Zack Snyder's latest sci-fi epic releasing on Netflix essentially the same day as what will be the final relic of his orchestration at Warner Bros. with regards to the DC Extended Universe (DCEU) is undoubtedly significant in some somber, unfortunate way yet I can't quite put my finger on why this congregation of Snyder's new and old universes feels sad on both accounts. It's paradoxical, sure, but I guess in the broader sense it simply seems like despite the DCEU not going his way he has recovered by making a two-part, $166 million ‘Star Wars’ rip-off for the biggest streaming service in the world and yet, it doesn't feel like a recovery at all; somehow it feels like a failure on two fronts which is what makes “Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom” all the more depressing.
Remember when Willem Dafoe was in an ‘Aquaman’ movie? Doesn't that feel like a lifetime ago and a universe away? Unfortunately, thanks to the pandemic and James Gunn both things are by and large true. “Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom” is the end of an era, the last of a dying breed and though certainly not how Snyder saw things ending, the movie itself is not the worst note the current iteration of the DCEU could have gone out on (that would have been “The Flash”). It's not good, don't get me wrong, but there is a certain charm that director James Wan and, of course, star Jason Momoa bring to what are already absurd proceedings. Likely not the better movie of the two, but because I went into this much-delayed and much-maligned sequel five years after having been conditioned to certain expectations, this was a better overall experience because of the (much) lower anticipation level. All things considered, Wan is still very much a world-class filmmaker who knows how to mount a handsomely constructed action-adventure romp and when hung on the back of a comically over-the-top lead it couldn't be more perfect for feeding every Saturday morning desire of every nine-year-old out there.
Written by David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick (who co-wrote the first film) this thing has a handful of "story by" credits including Momoa himself. I would love to know what bits of the story Momoa contributed or if he simply got this credit for coming up with lines like, "C'mon Cast Away! Grab Wilson, let’s roll!" Either way, our hero drops more pop culture references than a ‘Shrek’ film this time around and, while an undeniably fun presence, begins to beg the question of whether he's a "good actor" or not. I have no doubt much of this is simply due to Momoa's natural energy, but the opening montage of the film is all about establishing Arthur Curry as a new father and family man and the complications and stress that come along with this, being the King of Atlantis, and splitting his time between the land and the sea. The energy of the sequence and the filmmaking is up to the task of matching what Momoa is bringing, but tonally it all feels rather kitschy - and this time, not ironically. The funniest thing about this choice is that it is seemingly done in earnest to make it that much more of a Momoa vehicle and allowing his presence and personality to be the true star of the movie. Typically, with superhero movies, it is the character and the brand that bring in audiences and not the person playing them yet the choice to lean into everything that makes Momoa so appealing as a celebrity would suggest they wanted to turn things around in this last hurrah. Fortunately, it isn't long before some plot chicanery reunites Momoa with Patrick Wilson who plays Arthur's half-brother, Orm, and the two get to bro it up in an adventurous caper together.
To not delay the point, Wilson is the MVP of this movie and despite having to play a kind of "stick in the mud" character, he very much balances the abundance of levity Momoa brings to the otherwise dire circumstances of the plot. Wilson is six years older than Momoa despite playing the younger brother and whether it be his choice of how to present Orm running on land for the first time or having to deliver dialogue like, “Something happened to me when I touched that black trident,” his interpretation hits that kitschy quality in an appreciated, knowing fashion more so than in the excessive garishness and/or overly-sentimental manner that Momoa can't help but to heave. I don't want to seem like I'm piling on what is an appropriate performance from Momoa given the material, but just as the first film indulged its audience in eye candy and overwhelmed them with silliness to make-up for uncertainty in their world-building the same is true of the sequel except they decided to settle on how they defined Atlantis in the first film (especially since it is a much less prominent location in ‘Lost Kingdom’) and instead had Momoa take up the mantle (or trident) of indulging and overwhelming. Fortunately, Wilson bearing half the weight of the movie evens things out tonally with Yahya Abdul-Mateen II's return as Black Manta unfortunately (there's that word again) not being the stabilizing force to Momoa's Aquaman that the first film promised and that I was personally hoping he would be. It's not that Abdul-Mateen doesn't get plenty to do, he's the main antagonist and has just as much facetime if not more than Wilson does as Orm, but the "unfortunate" part comes when the script decides to do to him what Joss Whedon did to Jeremy Renner in “The Avengers.”
For all the charisma and power Abdul-Mateen possesses, he is possessed himself for the majority of this film. The plot deals with Manta AKA David Kane continuing to seek revenge against Arthur for his father's death. Early in the film we are re-introduced to the true hero of both comic book worlds currently represented on the big screen, Randall Park, as marine biologist Stephen Shin who is assisting Kane is locating Atlantean artifacts to repair his suit and give him the strength to go toe to toe with our hero. Stumbling upon the titular lost kingdom and locating the aforementioned black trident, Kane becomes immediately crazed and plagued with visions from its creator, an evil ruler named Kordax (Hey! it's Pilou Asbæk!), who promises Kane the power to destroy Arthur should he resurrect Kordax's lost kingdom of Necrus. Sounds simple enough, right? Unfortunately (stop it!), to do this Kane has to collect an ancient mineral known as "Orichalcum" that will essentially make a global climate meltdown more than imminent (see what happens when we do nothing about global warming?). That said, the script does ultimately provide some nice symmetry for Abdul-Mateen's character before taking something of an unexpected turn thematically that audiences will seemingly never see the resolution of.
One of the biggest advantages of ‘The Lost Kingdom’ though, is that it is very much a contained story that offers enough fun touches and character growth to be a natural extension of where the first film left off. We don't get any drumming cephalopods this time around, but one does join Arthur on his journey to break Orm out of prison. Instead, we get Martin Short voicing a character named Kingfish, a crime lord who looks exactly as his name implies, Nicole Kidman riding on the back of an armored shark and somehow still delivering dialogue with conviction, and Hammerhead Shark security guards who are probably the closest thing ‘90s kids will ever get to a Street Sharks "live-action" movie. While Momoa's performance feels a little too baroque at times, even for this material, there is no denying the level of physicality he brings to the role and the believability his stature lends to the action sequences - especially those that are harder to sell like those that take place in the water as he performs acrobatics on the back of seahorse. The way Wan can emphasize scale and the physical construction of sets like Manta's ancient ship as well as the costume design of the creatures guarding Orm's prison in the desert each lend a more tactile feeling to this mystical world where these events take place. Some of these touches are so good, in fact, they almost make up for how bad the other half of the film looks when it's clear a kind of "murky water" filter was applied to hide some of the shoddier effects.
If nothing else, I’m glad something like “Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom” exists so that both the generations who will see Momoa as their defining Aquaman and harbor an appreciation for these movies because of the point in their youth in which they saw them (seriously though, like I know these movies are all for profit, but I wish the gatekeepers at major studios would take more seriously how much certain runs of certain heroes will mean to certain groups of people who see them at certain times in their lives) as well as grade schoolers who might discover these films once ‘The Lost Kingdom’ hits Max in a month so that they know what high-level movie making in this genre looks like and that they deserve better than the half-baked, budget-friendly nonsense they’re likely fed ad nauseam on streamers (which I swear is not a slight at “Rebel Moon”). Even if the best parts of ‘The Lost Kingdom’ are the ones that ape “Avatar,” even if there are multiple needle drops of "Spirit in the Sky" despite this being about an underwater king, and even if Arthur's son, Junior, looks way more like Patrick Wilson than he does Jason Momoa, I'm happy everyone here was able to see this through and deliver one last Saturday morning cartoon on steroids that a certain, large demographic will absolutely revel in and love to look back on.