And with that, the DCEU is officially dead. It’s been a decade but with the credits rolling on Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom, we can finally close the book on what has been one hell of a roller coaster ride. And in the end… was it worth it?
As the one person on this site who has been chronicling almost everything DCEU-related since I first joined, I think I can safely say that the only people who are going to miss this failed experiment of a cinematic universe are going to be the Zack Snyder fans, but even then they’re too busy hyping up an equally bad cinematic universe that I cannot wait to talk about in the near future. Still, in a year that gave us four DCEU films, does it really mean anything when I say that Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom is the best of them all?
Granted, its competition is a lifeless sequel whose lead star has all but killed any semblance of positivity associated with the series, a catastrophic bomb that landed with a thud, and a ho-hum debut film bogged down by questions of its place in whatever the hell James Gunn’s plan for the DC Universe is. At the very least, Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom knows what it is and does its job competently, for whatever that’s worth at this point.
Watch this video on YouTube
Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom
Director: James Wan
Release Date: December 22, 2023 (Theatrical)
Set some time after the first movie, Arthur Curry (Jason Mamoa) has settled into a comfortable life as the king of Atlantis. By day, he’s trying to handle the problems that the kingdom faces, and by night, he goes back to the surface to take care of his newborn son. However, Black Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) has returned to seek vengeance against Aquaman and has the power of the Black Trident on his side. What is the Black Trident? Well, it’s a relic of the eponymous “Lost Kingdom” that is slowly corrupting him and encouraging him to let out a thousands of years old evil to aid in killing Aquaman and destroying the world, so clearly, he needs to be stopped. But Aquaman can’t do it alone, so he’ll need to bust his tyrannical brother, Orm (Patrick Wilson), out of jail to aid in stopping Manta and saving both the land and sea.
Not much has changed presentation-wise from the original film back when it was released in 2018. If you liked the pure spectacle of the first movie, while there is admittingly less of that here as the film opts to focus more on character development, what’s here is still effective and gets the job done. Whenever you feel like the energy is starting to die down, a new action scene is ready to pop in and jolt you back into attention. There’s not a whole lot to distinguish these scenes and they often recycle a lot of the same elements (Black Manta uses his laser, a giant robot attacks, Aquaman bum rushes someone), but recycled action beats are hardly the worst sins an action movie can commit.
No, what is a big sin is that you can tell that Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom had been edited to hell and back. Outside of some very weird slow-mo implemented in a handful of scenes, the movie’s overall structure just feels… weird. The big lore dump occurs right at the beginning of the climax meant to establish the stakes. Not even two minutes after Aquaman explains why Orm needs to be snuck out of jail, he’s suddenly free. Voiceovers do a lot of heavy lifting just to keep the plot moving and you can pretty easily tell that this movie had three reshoots over the course of two years. These are not the kind of reshoots where they’re trying to fix problems within the film, but rather trying to make the film lineup with whatever the hell was happening elsewhere in the DCEU. I think James Gunn and James Wan eventually threw their hands up in the air, said screw it, and just put the film in theaters to be done with the whole project.
That’s a pretty negative reading of the situation to be sure, but can you blame them? It’s almost impossible to talk about Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom without first acknowledging the mess that DC put themselves in. Now a movie that isn’t all that bad has been put out to die when it really doesn’t deserve that. You can tell that there is at least some effort being put into it by the cast members. Yahya Abdul-Mateen is an excellent villain, going all in on just being a despicable person until the very end. Jason Mamoa’s dude-bro schtick may get old to some pretty quickly, but when paired with Patrick Wilson’s stick-in-the-mud demeanor, it strangely works. Patrick Wilson is probably the weakest of the three leads as he does seem pretty miscast in a superhero blockbuster, but he at least knows not to take what’s happening here too seriously and isn’t afraid to make a fool of himself.
Admittedly, the film really does ratchet up the stupidity when compared to the first film in a way that screams “dumb fun.” The villain manipulating Black Manta is a cross between a Power Rangers villain and a Captain Planet villain whose goal is basically to destroy the world via pollution. The film is beating the drum about protecting the Earth and stopping global warming, but any message the film may have is kind of ruined by how quickly it undermines the seriousness of the situation. For instance, Aquaman makes Orm eat cockroaches while talking about the joys of eating pizza right after arriving at the villain’s base, which is a giant volcano shooting green toxic fumes into the sky. It’s pretty dang stupid, but it’s stupid in a way that feels almost nostalgic for a bygone era. It doesn’t take itself too seriously to the point where you can’t derive any enjoyment from it, a problem many early DCEU films had. It’s intentionally goofy because the film knows that you’re not there to see commentary on the nature of government or a gripping emotional drama about the responsibility that leadership requires. You’re there to see Aquaman ride a seahorse and fight sharks with lasers.
That stupidity does reach a boiling point by the climax though, which just throws everything and the kitchen sink but none of it sticks. We rush through three different villains that Aquaman has to stop with plenty of mediocre CG to boot. You can feel the film is trying to wrap itself up as quickly as possible and damns any and all logic in its pursuit of getting things the hell over with. It’s not as bad or as blatant as other DCEU efforts, but by the end, you just feel worn out and want the film to wrap up. I think this is because Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom doesn’t really introduce anything new to the franchise and is just reusing the same characters in different ways. There are hardly any new additions here other than changing the character dynamics, so after a while, there’s not much for the film to do apart from having a big climax to attempt to resolve everything.
And it does resolve itself… in a way. I’m glad that there wasn’t a post-credits scene that tried to tease what’s to come since we all know there’s nothing after this. Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom does set up areas that a sequel could explore, but it feels like a pretty definitive ending for its characters. And I’m okay with that. If there is a demand for a third Aquaman movie, I’d be okay with it since this franchise’s batting average has been fine at best. And yes, Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom is ever so slightly worse than its predecessor, but that’s mostly because it doesn’t really attempt to do anything new with the premise other than putting the same cast in slightly different situations. They still manage to have some fun here and I did find myself enjoying the film at times, but I can’t say I’m gonna look back with wistful nostalgia at the Aquaman movies.
They were good at just being basic action movies and that’s about it. They were entertaining and inoffensive superhero fluff, which should be viewed somewhat favorably after the past year DC has had. I didn’t actively hate my time with this movie, I wasn’t bored to tears by it, and I wasn’t confused at what the purpose of it even was. Everything about Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom was abundantly clear. It wanted to be a simple action movie, just like the first movie, but was ever so slightly weaker because it wasn’t as fresh. I respect that it reached its goals and didn’t have its eyes set on the moon. Maybe that’s a lesson that DC can learn moving forward. Sometimes it’s okay to be competent and unambitious. Sometimes it’s okay to just be stupid and try to have fun.