Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom is a movie that looks like it has a lot of baggage, what with it being the last film in DC movieverse that launched with Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel, conflicting reports about which Batman would show up, rumors that Amber Heard’s relationship drama with Johnny Depp ended up sidelining her, and so on.
But it’s been much ado about nothing, really. This Aquaman flick works as a direct sequel to the first movie and doesn’t bother with the greater franchise at all–why would it, when there’s nothing left to tease? Naturally, that means there’s no Batman in this movie. And the rumors about Amber Heard’s Mera being sidelined were just wrong, because she’s in it plenty and has several major heroic moments in the third act.
All of that stuff was just noise. As a new mega-budget action-adventure flick from one of the very best filmmakers working today, Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom rules.
What we’ve ended up with is more or less the best-case scenario for Aquaman 2: It’s just a dope new James Wan flick that’s full of all sorts of weird and cool stuff that wasn’t even hinted at in that trailer everyone has seen over and over for the past several months. Just as the first Aquaman succeeded despite being released in the shadow of the Justice League debacle, The Lost Kingdom works exceptionally well despite serving as the franchise’s dying breath.
Aquaman 2 picks up directly where the previous movie left off, with Black Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) teaming up with Dr. Shen (Randall Park) to look for Atlantean technology that he can use to repair his power suit. But they get remarkably lucky–thanks to man-made climate change, a glacial ice shelf that had been hiding something big is starting to break, and it leaves them an opening. There Manta finds a creepy old trident and a ghost that promises him power in exchange for freedom from its ancient prison.
The newly enhanced Manta no longer needs the power suit because he’s got ancient ghost powers, not to mention a much more powerful laser helmet and a really cool old hammerhead submarine with an ultra-powerful sonic beam that can knock out Aquaman himself.
Arthur Curry/Aquaman (Jason Momoa), meanwhile, is the king of Atlantis and now also a father. Being king is pretty annoying, it turns out, and Manta’s return after a couple years is quite an event–he nearly manages to kill Mera with a blast from his new laser during the first big action sequence of the movie. This fight has other consequences as well–the Council of Atlantis doesn’t think Aquaman is doing enough to protect them from the machinations of the surface world, since they think Manta is a surface issue, and they’re threatening to
So Arthur’s gotta do something drastic: break his brother Orm (Patrick Wilson), the bad guy from the last movie, out of his desert prison and go on the offensive. I don’t want to say much more about where the adventure goes from there–this is where all the cool stuff that wasn’t in the trailer starts happening.
On a technical and visual level, Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom is as awesome as the first movie was–you’re just not going to catch James Wan putting out a poorly made film in any respect, even when the film in question has been re-worked over and over again during post-production like this one likely has been. It’s beautiful, the action is remarkable, and the Patrick Wilson/Jason Momoa pairing is incredible–Wilson is hilarious to a degree that I would never have expected, and it’s wonderful.
If you’re looking for much in the way of meaning or substance, though, you’re not going to find a whole lot of it here. For the most part, we’re here for fun and eye candy, not necessarily its brains. After all, this is a sequel to a movie that showed that dinosaurs aren’t extinct without any of the characters actually acknowledging it.
There is some very pointed climate change-related social commentary, but it’s not subtle–Manta literally says, “Thank god for global warming, am I right?” and basically wields the power of climate change against Atlantis. But for the most part, Aquaman 2 is just the sort of movie where, once it’s all just about wrapped up, a character will tell Arthur that he’s not so bad at being king after all, even though he hasn’t done a single kingly task the entire movie.
But that’s OK. We’re not watching this film for its brains. We’re watching it because it’s silly, fun, thrilling, super slick, and balances its ensemble surprisingly well. Randall Park, despite being completely absent from the marketing, is one of the film’s main characters and serves as its heart in some ways, and Amber Heard’s Mera is also prominent despite being similarly minimized in the trailer–she’s still one of the main characters!
Given the mood around DC this year, I think we all very reasonably expected Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom could end up being the same sort of mess that The Flash was. Instead, James Wan proved once again why he’s one of the best directors we’ve got by giving the DC movieverse a much more awesome swan song than we could have expected, and it’s a better one than the franchise probably deserved.