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Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom Flounders But Doesn't Quite Sink

At one moment in Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom, characters are running through a mutated jungle, chased by lion-sized cockroaches while avoiding violent, human-eating plants. In another moment, multiple characters are standing around, their hair flowing wildly, delivering wooden dialogue that’s almost as painful for them to say as it is for us to hear.

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That mix of positive and negative is a great representation of Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom. It’s a movie that tries to be everything at the expense of being anything. At times it’s goofy and exciting. At other times it’s serious and stoic. But unlike the 2018 original, which found a strong balance between those things, this sequel struggles to blend an overly complicated narrative and lofty themes alongside the big, fun action set pieces. It’s not altogether terrible but more often than not, it feels like a slog.

When we last left Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa) he’d defeated his half-brother Orm (Patrick Wilson) and became king of Atlantis, a vast underwater kingdom hidden from the surface world. Now, probably a year or so later, Arthur and Hera (Amber Heard) have a child, Arthur Jr., and finding a way to be both a father and a king has become a struggle. These early scenes are among the best in the movie, allowing Momoa to be his big-kid self while also opening up new possibilities for the character, that of a hero torn between two worlds. Unfortunately, that gets forgotten rather quickly.

That’s partially because one of Arthur’s old nemeses, Black Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), is searching the globe for technology that will help him fight and defeat Arthur. He soon stumbles upon a mysterious, powerful black Trident that gives him ancient powers he can’t quite explain. Manta and his crew instantly become more formidable than ever and, to find and defeat him, Arthur must ask his imprisoned brother for help.

Starting there and moving on throughout the movie, the major plot points in Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom all seem a tad too complex and drawn out. Manta discovering the Trident comes after a slightly overstuffed exploration sequence. Arthur needing Orm means he has to go against a council he’s a part of and betray one of his allies, while also defeating some random bug monsters. There is also a lot, and we mean a lot, of talk about this ancient, deadly energy source that plays a huge role in the story. Then, once Arthur and Orm forge an unlikely alliance, their journey takes them to several different spots, such as a whole pirate hideaway that’s very cool to look at, and features Martin Short voicing an underwater Jabba the Hutt character called Kingfish, but adds almost nothing of note.

Then there’s the promise of the title, this mythical Lost Kingdom, which you’d imagine plays a major role in the movie (it being in the title after all) but is held back until very close to the end, making it feel incredibly superfluous. Elements are seeded throughout of course, but once we get the big narrative dump explaining the Lost Kingdom and everything around it, you’ve basically figured it out and just want to plow through it to get to the big finale.

The big finale is when, finally, the usually incredible director James Wan really gets to flex his muscles. There are wonderful 360-degree camera moves. Terrifying and bold angles as we discover key new locations. And as the film starts to get a little more interesting to look at, you realize something: you’ve been watching a James Wan movie for about 90 minutes and nothing about it has stood out visually until now. Are there cool creatures? Ships? Entertaining action? Sure. But all of it is overshadowed by a film’s desire to take a relatively simple basic story and overstuff it for overstuffing’s sake. Whether or not it’s true, the climatic battle scenes simply have more cohesion and authorship to them, as if those were locked in while everything around them changed.

And yet, despite all its flaws, there are plenty of moments where Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom can be very enjoyable. Jason Momoa is, as usual, really fun to watch. He and Patrick Wilson have great chemistry and a bunch of great scenes together. Amber Heard’s Mera, rumored to be cut out of the film or at least cut back, has a few really big, heroic moments. Characters ride giant bugs. Giant seahorses. Nicole Kidman pilots a shark. Plus, there are several attempts at making the movie about something other than Aquaman vs. Black Manta, all of which give the sense the movie is going to be better than is, but then fail to deliver. One example is the political tension between underwater worlds. Another is the story’s impact on the global environment. But ultimately even the best moments get forgotten because they, like the rest of the movie, are all over the place.

Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom is certainly not the worst film in the recent DC Universe—but as the follow-up to one of the better ones, we expected more. It feels like a movie that was way more impacted by whatever was happening behind the scenes at DC than anyone involved would care to admit. Because if that wasn’t the case, everyone involved came in with too many ideas and decided to shove them all in there. The result is a film that doesn’t sink, but neither does it swim. It just kicks and kicks hoping to rise above. But it does not.

Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom is now in theaters.

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