Aquaman and the Lost Kitschdom
Even an octopus riding a giant seahorse can't quite save James Wan's latest.
Director James Wan’s Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom includes an oversized fish/mob boss voiced by Martin Short channeling a malevolent Jiminy Glick; in one scene, Academy Award winner Nicole Kidman is forced to act opposite Dolph Lundgren and crab-person voiced by Jonathan Rhys-Davies; later in the movie, the hero will be saved by an octopus riding a giant bioluminescent seahorse.
Objectively, Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom is not a good movie.
Subjectively, I do not understand how anyone could completely hate this motion picture.
Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom finds the titular hero (Jason Momoa) balancing duties as the king of Atlantis and a daddy to a baby that magically doesn’t grow a single bit over the course of five months (although that seems to be an error on the part of the filmmakers and not part of the plot). He achieves the former obligations with the help of his mother (Kidman) and the latter duties with the help of his father (Temuera Morrison). His wife, Mera (Amber Heard), also helps, kind of, although the movie noticeably shoves her off to the sidelines, first with no real in-story explanation, and then with an in-story explanation. His mentor from the last movie, Vulko, doesn’t help at all, because he dies off-screen, presumably to save the production from having to pay Willem Dafoe to return.
In any case, all is more or less well until Aquaman’s mortal enemy, Black Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) - now assiduously only referred to as “David Kane” or “Manta” - gets ahold of a magical MacGuffin that gives him a psychic connection with a zombie with glowing green eyes who has been frozen in ice for millions of years. The zombie promises to help Manta kill Aquaman in exchange for speeding up global warming so he can get out, and Manta doesn’t point out that there are other ways to melt ice besides ending the world, because the movie needs to happen. Manta also gets his own sidekick this time in the form of Dr. Shin (Randall Park), a scientist who wants to prove to the world that Atlantis is real (this several years after Aquaman has twice saved the planet, once working side-by-side with Superman, Wonder Woman, and the Flash - why anyone would doubt the existence of Atlantis is unclear).
For reasons I truly did not quite follow, Aquaman becomes convinced that the only person who can help him stop Manta is his half-brother/other nemesis, Orm (Patrick Wilson), a.k.a. Ocean Master, who was imprisoned following the events of the first Aquaman. And for reasons having to do with needing another action scene in the movie, Orm has to be broken out of jail even though Aquaman is the king. So Aquaman does just that, and he and Orm go off on their adventure, and gee is it possible that these two will actually like one another by the end? Nahhhhhh. They LOVE each other by the end!
So they do the thing to find the guy to get the thing to stop the zombie or whatever. People punch people and CGI glowy things glow and the movie borrows the end of Black Panther before rolling credits.
There are three kinds of kids’ movies: ones that are good for kids but not adults, ones that are good for kids and adults, and ones that are good for nobody. Wan’s first Aquaman was a kids’ movie that was good for kids but not adults, while Lost Kingdom is a kids’ movie that is that isn’t good for anyone. The story, you may have discerned by now, is a mess, albeit a noble mess that earnestly tries to convey a number of ethically-positive messages about enemies putting aside differences, climate disaster, the pleasures of trying foreign cuisines for the first time, and the importance of not taking an unmistakably evil zombie with glowing green eyes at its word. The special effects are hit or miss, but honestly more miss than hit. And it’s hard not to be distracted by Heard’s absence, given that she was more or less the co-lead of the first film, and that we all know it wasn’t a purely creative decision to whittle her part down to practically nothing (whereas I honestly would have forgotten that Willem Dafoe was even in the first Aquaman if the movie didn’t make a point of explaining why he’s not in this one).
And so, in many ways, Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom is the Batman & Robin to Aquaman’s Batman Forever: it maintains the knowingly-campy tone of the original while dispensing with even the flimsiest narrative coherence.
And yet, it is better than Batman & Robin - or any number of other big-budget commercials for toys and Underoos. Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom doesn’t take itself too seriously, like Rebel Moon, or seem lazy to the point of being contemptuous towards it audience, like Transformers, and while it reportedly underwent a lot of reshoots which may have only contributed to story’s issues rather than helped them, it doesn’t feel like multiple movies stitched together by a board room committee, the way David Ayer’s Suicide Squad, the theatrical release of Justice League, or the Josh Trank version of Fantastic Four did. There’s an air of sincerity here missing from those other movies; if Malignant was Wan making the silliest possible movie that his 13-year-old self would loved, the Aquamans are Wan making the silliest possible movies that his 7-year-old self would loved (did I mention an octopus rides a giant seahorse?). It’s just that this time the 7-year-old had maybe a little bit too much control.
Kudos, regardless, to stars Momoa, Wilson, and Morrison for their willingness to look so goofy, to Park for just being Park, to Lundgren for earning his SAG health benefits for another calendar year, and especially to Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, who is seemingly incapable of being underwhelming.
Regardless of its shortcoming, I’ll take Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom over Avatar: The Way of Water any day of the week. Cameron’s film may be “better,” but Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom is more creative, more willing to go balls-to-the wall with weirdness, less impressed with itself, and, perhaps most importantly of all, an hour shorter.