Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom (2023) Review

So, this marks the end of the DCEU era. A ten-year journey of creatively and narratively inconsistent attempts at an interconnected cinematic universe that resulted in more misses than hits. The first Aquaman was fortunately one of the better ones and believe it or not, it was the only DCEU movie that crossed the billion-dollar club in the worldwide box office.

The sequel, however, took so long to reach the shore. A five-year too long, to be exact and somewhere in between, the DCEU franchise is crumbling down. Not to mention the Amber Heard controversy, multiple reshoots and poor test screenings, among others. By the time the long-delayed Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom arrives, the hype is gone and I went in with low expectations.

The sequel sees the King of Atlantis, Aquaman (Jason Momoa), taking a new responsibility as a father to his baby child, Arthur Jr. But his otherwise happy and peaceful life is shortlived when his old enemy from the first movie, Black Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) resurfaces to seek vengeance. This time, he comes well prepared after discovering a powerful Black Trident somewhere in the Lost Kingdom of Necrus in Antarctica. To track down and defeat Black Manta, Aquaman has no choice but to turn to his half-brother Orm (Patrick Wilson). The latter is currently imprisoned beneath the dunes of the Kingdom of the Deserters.

And now, Aquaman needs to break him out of the prison — a result that sees the mismatched pair subsequently venture into the buddy-comedy territory. It was easily the best part of the sequel, thanks to the entertaining chemistry between Momoa and Wilson. They certainly play off each other well. Seeing them bicker, banter and get themselves into trouble in a series of misadventures sure reminds me of the good old days of the buddy-comedy genre craze in the ’80s and ’90s era. Too bad it doesn’t last long and I wish James Wan, returning to the director’s chair for the second round, would embrace the buddy-comedy angle further rather than just making it a minor part of the story.

This, in turn, causes Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom to suffer from a tonally inconsistent narrative structure. It makes me feel that Wan and returning screenwriter David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick (or is it because of a major studio interference?) can’t seem to stick their landing.

Instead, the sequel wants to be everything at once. At one point, there’s a feeble attempt to address the climate change and global warming issues. The “lost kingdom” in the subtitle of this sequel feels more like an afterthought and then, there’s the standard-issue revenge story revolving around Black Manta’s determination to kill Aquaman and destroy his kingdom.

Yahya Abdul-Mateen II returns as Black Manta in "Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom" (2023)

For those who can’t stand the sight of Amber Heard, I have bad news here because Wan still retains her in the sequel. But her Mera character is more like a placeholder. The weirdly zero chemistry between her and Momoa, in the meantime, is a far cry from what I’ve seen in the first movie.

Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom may have been packed with lots of action and big CGI moments. And yet, it somehow lacks the epic thrills and sense of cinematic fun that made the first Aquaman (remember the Sicily scene?) such a blast watching it on the big screen. Not even the IMAX screening can give me the much-needed wow factor.

The sequel does have some notable fight choreography and the CGI is visually striking in certain parts, complete with Bill Brzeski and Sahby Mehalla’s imaginative production design of the underwater kingdoms. Wan doesn’t forget his horror roots as he puts them to good use during the introduction of the underwater zombies.

As for the cast, Jason Momoa and Patrick Wilson steal the shows here. But personally, it was the latter who impressed me the most with his no-nonsense charm and perfect comic timing (that cockroach moment comes to mind). Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, who is given a bigger role in this sequel, is sadly relegated to a garden-variety, comic-book villain.

The rest such as Dolph Lundgren, Temuera Morrison and Nicole Kidman deliver adequate support reprising their respective roles as King Nereus, Tom Curry and Atlanna. The sequel also sees the return of Topo the octopus, who was briefly seen in the first movie, shows up in a bigger role as Aquaman’s sidekick with some worthwhile comic-relief moments.

2023 has been a turbulent year for the superhero genre with the DCEU movies including Shazam! Fury of the Gods and The Flash could only muster a so-so effort. Blue Beetle, however, turned out to be a surprise package that exceeded my expectations, despite the movie bombed at the box office. Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom could have been the added and last lifesaver of the closing chapter of the DCEU era. James Wan previously did a great job in the first movie and whatever happened behind the scenes ended up in a mostly generic sequel straight out of the assembly line.