As the DCEU ends, Aquaman’s exuberant nature arrives like the party animal far too late to get in on the party. The superhero swings by for his sequel with a six-pack of beer and the same bravado he brought from the last film. While some of that energy from the previous blockbuster resonates here, there’s only so much Aquaman can do with so little to work with, especially within a narrative where it feels like the engine is out of control and can’t slow down.
It’s almost merciful that this film doesn’t try to tie into any other DCEU film. This isn’t because the DCEU is effectively dead after this film but because there’s too much else going on. Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa) has a lot going on in his life. Having overthrown his violent brother Orm (Patrick Wilson), Arthur dons his Aquaman costume and assumes his duties as the king of Atlantis, dealing with the stuffy nature of inter-kingdom underwater politics. He’s also trying to settle down with his wife Mera (Amber Heard), and get used to the idea of raising a baby, especially one with the same powers as him. So there’s plenty on his plate, and it’s about spillover with more to do.
David Kane (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), aka Black Manta, still hasn’t gotten over the loss of his father in an attack by Aquaman from the first movie. Still bound by revenge, he seeks a new means of power when unearthing a secret kingdom of buried zombies. I must admit I greatly enjoyed Black Manta in this film, not merely because he takes center stage as the primary villain. David leans in hard to his supervillain nature, boasting a vessel capable of handling Atlantian warriors, complete with his own costumed henchmen and a reluctant scientist played by Randall Park. He wields a staff of glowing-green evil and makes threats with knives, willing to destroy the entire planet if it means he can finally defeat that gloating Aquaman.
Much like the last film, this Aquaman sequel has a lot of creativity thrown into the underwater setting. While other DCEU films felt like they were trying to make the silly nature of superheroes palatable for modern audiences, there’s a refreshing nature to this film embracing the weirdness. Such exciting adventures span from an underground prison run by skeleton-like creatures to an underwater haven for ocean criminals, organized by a slimy Jabba-the-Hutt-style crime lord, Kingfish (Martin Short). The accepting nature of such silly aspects as Aquaman’s companion for a prison break being a skilled octopus is genuinely fun.
So why don’t I feel the same gleeful nature as the previous film? It’s because this film feels like it can’t slow down long enough to explore anything else with its characters. More time is spent explaining the mechanics of the titular lost kingdom and its lore of darkness than the engrossing character dynamic between Arthur and Orm. They spend much time together on this adventure as rivals turned reluctant family, and their scenes together have some chemistry. It’s too bad there’s not more of that in the film, given how much else is tossed to the wayside. Aquaman’s son is reduced to being a hostage, Mera is out of commission for the majority of the film, and the not-returning Willem Dafoe as Vulko is weirdly written out with a mysterious plague that is never once shown in the film, yet spoken of like a major threat.
I also had some major issues with how the film frames its allegory of climate change. The evil zombie kingdom was previously destroyed with an obsession for power that would have doomed the planet. When climate change gets worse in this film, nearly all of it is blamed on Black Manta’s evil plan to burn toxic resources and speed up the process. The human world, which Atlantis regards as a threat to their existence, remains distant in this story and assumes little blame for anything climate-related. Sure, Black Manta and the lost kingdom of evil resource-burning zombies can be seen as stand-ins for greedy corporations and ego-driven tyrants, but it comes off more like a safe means of passing the buck and ensuring this blockbuster doesn’t ruffle the feathers of the key factor in climate change.
Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom spends so much time getting lost in its own fantasy that it’s not as much fun as it proposes. There’s this wild tonal shift in the final scene, where Aquaman whips around quickly from a meaningful speech about making the world better with an orchestral score behind him to a hell-yeah one-liner capped with a mic-drop and classic rock choice. The essence of a fun superhero film can be felt in that sequence, but it just doesn’t work with this scattershot and whiplash method of fast-paced fantasy. Thus, Aquaman 2 rides the DCEU off into the sunset without brakes, where the speed is both alluring and concerning.