One of the most amusing bits of the 2000s HBO sitcom Entourage was the fake movies that existed within the TV show. While protagonist Vincent Chase was fictional, the Hollywood he moved through was not. Real actors playing versions of themselves cameoed as they helped build Chase’s fictional movie star career, with each faux film working as a parody of some trend or fad at the time. The most infamously pointed of these was Aquaman, a phony superhero flick designed to poke fun at the recent Sam Raimi Spider-Man movie.
I thought about that gag for the first time in years while watching Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom this holiday weekend, and not just because it also revolved around DC’s most waterlogged superhero, Arthur Curry. Rather the uncanny, gnawing sensation that stalks Aquaman 2 like some bloodthirsty tuna is that you’re not watching a real movie. Something this soulless, this devoid of personality, ambition, or creative spark cannot be real, right? Someone in the projector room’s gotta be putting our leg, or we’re going to discover that we are really watching a movie-within-a-movie, like how Last Action Hero begins with Arnold Schwarzenegger starring in a satire of one of his guns-and-biceps joints, Jack Slater IV.
Unfortunately, Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom is very real, and its sheer ineptness as a narrative, as a follow-up to 2018’s passable spectacle Aquaman, or even as some kind of final word on the DC Extended Universe, is breathtaking. This denouement of the DCEU is less a wake or celebration than it is an example of hasty studio obligation. They say a few platitudes, hoist up the body while it’s still warm, and toss it into the drink. But then the audience has to sit there and watch the carcass slowly float around the boat for 124 minutes before it finally succumbs to the inky and merciful black.
The storytelling of the piece has clearly been hacked to pieces from the start. Reports and rumors suggest Aquaman 2 was largely reshot twice, and reedited three times in lieu of increasingly bleak audience test scores. I cannot attest to if all of that went down, but from the jump, there’s clearly been some craven tinkering and skullduggery behind the scenes. The film limply begins by stitching together a generic action sequence where Jason Momoa’s Aquaman fights pirates (I think), puts up with domestic annoyances as an infant son shoots urine at his beard, and awkwardly remembers flashbacks to how the kid was born between films that were released five years apart.
It’s all held together by Momoa’s voiceover narration, popsicle sticks, chewing gum, and a prayer for a deliverance that never comes. The absolute hollowness of the film is most explicit in the realization that Mera, Aquaman’s mermaid queen and a co-lead of the last film as played by Amber Heard, is barely in this montage of alleged marital bliss. In fact, she’s barely in the movie despite being the mother of this child who figures prominently to the film’s plot.
When Mera does appear, any bits of dialogue she appears about to say have been removed, leaving Heard about 10 lines of exposition in the whole movie—which is barely above the number of bodily fluid jokes David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick’s screenplay desperately employs in a doomed attempt at levity. In an effort to appease the ugliest corners of the internet, Aquaman 2 throws Heard under the jet ski, but doesn’t even have the courage of its convictions to succumb to online thuggery. So she just sits there in the background, an emblem of a film so afraid of rocking the boat that it starts poking holes in its own hull.
The real story, such as it is, involves the first film’s superfluous side villain, who at last has become relevant: Black Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II). The groovy looking fiend has discovered the
One Ring of Power a black trident with the ability to psychically link him with an ancient sentient evil who wishes Black Manta to bring the magical accessory to his seat of dark sorcery power. In return for the service, they’ll rule the world together, but only after kind of destroying it because the trident is also causing super-accelerated climate change. Uh huh.
To stop him, Aquaman and his mother Atlanna (Oscar-winner Nicole Kidman, visibly regretting the paycheck and current industry trends that led her to such a fate) devise a plan to rescue Aquaman’s half-brother and mortal enemy from the last movie, Orm (Patrick Wilson). It turns out that Orm knows how to find Black Manta. Buddy comedy hijinks ensue as Wilson and Momoa hit the watery trail.
To be clear, certain elements of Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom work just fine, and the chemistry between Momoa and Wilson is at the top of that list. In the previous film, these two actors got relatively little screen time to bounce off one another, and when they did, it was usually laden with blankets of exposition. In The Lost Kingdom, the exposition dumps are mostly left to other characters, so instead Momoa and Wilson get to just vibe in what are easily the best portions of the movie. Wilson plays the straight man to Momoa’s cowabunga bro-iness.
Similarly, director James Wan remains an impressive visual stylist, and at the risk of damning with faint praise, he creates perhaps the second best looking live-action superhero movie in 2023, behind only Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3. Wan’s embrace of translucent and psychedelic colors pop, especially in contrast to the tsunami of gray sludge comprising most Marvel Studios pictures. Wan and production designers Bill Brzeski and Sahby Mehalla also have a ball building real sets to represent the ancient evil of the Trench culture that gave the world the black trident. It’s a shameless rip-off of the Mordor and Isengard aesthetic from Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies, of course, but at least it won’t cause your eyes to glaze over like the Quantum Realm or whatever the hell The Flash’s CG climax was supposed to be.
Yet despite Wan’s visual flourishes, it’s hard to believe this was the movie he set out to make—or that it was ultimately crafted by anyone outside a boardroom’s worth of suits who crowded sweatily around an editing bay to offer their latest batch of “notes.” Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom is an empty, cynical movie that sandwiches nearly every superhero movie cliché inside of two hours and then stuffs in plenty more from early 2000s sequels that likewise wanted to crowbar in feel-good family sitcom-ery. Think The Mummy Returns or The Legend of Zorro (except those movies didn’t write out the wife/mother character). It’s a parody of itself that never feels real.
The fact Aquaman 2 must stand as the final word on the DCEU is as dispiriting as it is appropriate. The DCEU began full of ambition and pretension, imagining itself to be the “American mythology of our times,” but was in such a hurry to get to those mythos that it disastrously threw Batman, Wonder Woman, and even Aquaman for half a second into its Death of Superman flick. Now, living in the ruins of extinguished audience interest and a total absence of hype, The Lost Kingdom attempts to be the most milquetoast, middle of the road superhero film you might ever ever seen, with absolutely no connection to the other parts of the DCEU. Rumors suggest both Michael Keaton and Ben Affleck filmed cameos as Batman for various incarnations of this thing, and you can pretty easily figure out where they would have been slotted in at the end.
Yet right down to its pitiful mid-credits sequence gag, Aquaman 2 goes out of its way to live and die alone—to not tease one more second being spent in these toxic and corrosive waters. It’s probably for the best, because the DCEU ship has sunk, and despite his super powers, Aquaman simply gets to be the last one to gasp for breath before going under. Afterward, all that is left is still and quiet.
Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom is in theaters now.