Monday 1 January 2024

Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom | review by Stephen Theaker

It’s a shame that Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom, Jason Momoa’s sixth appearance as Aquaman, seems likely to be his last for now. In his cameos, in Batman vs Superman, Peacemaker and The Flash, and his full appearances in Justice League and Aquaman, his exuberance and commitment to the role made him a joy to watch. I wish there were more films to come, but at least we got more of his Aquaman than we did of his equally enjoyable Conan the Barbarian.

Whether this film takes place after the multiverse-changing events of The Flash or not isn't established, but doesn't make a great deal of difference. Sensibly, it's a direct sequel to the first Aquaman film, continuing its storylines and themes. Many of its actors return. As this film begins, Aquaman is thoroughly bored of his job as king of Atlantis. He is nodding off during audiences, and frustrated by the constraints on his power. He has much more fun playing with his baby son and battering pirates.

When Black Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) starts to attack Atlantean storage facilities, that gives Aquaman the excuse he needs to jump off the throne and get his trident dirty again. Joined by his octopus chum Topo, he decides to break his half-brother Orm (Patrick Wilson) out of a desert prison. Aquaman put him in that prison, deprived of water, as punishment for his crimes in the previous film, so there is tension between them, but it's played for laughs rather than high drama. It's a buddy-cop scenario, and Patrick Wilson is effectively the co-lead, the Murtaugh to Aquaman's Riggs. He gets some great moments, not least when, after their escape, he leaps from the sea, restored to full strength and ready to rumble.

Amber Heard as Aquaman's wife Mera isn't the lead character she was in the first film, but reports that she had been excised completely were far off the mark. She plays an important role, as do Nicole Kidman as Aquamum, Dolph Lundgren as Aquafather-in-law and Temuera Morrison as Aquadad. Randall Park (also active in the MCU) returns too, as Dr Stephen Shin, a scientist who just wants to see Atlantis but finds himself the right-hand man to an increasingly insane super-villain. Black Manta's power-up, from a denizen of the lost kingdom, makes him a truly formidable foe for the two Aquabrothers and their allies, but it came at a cost.

It's baffling to me that a film series that began with a billion-dollar film was being laid to rest before the second film was even released. And it's just as baffling that this film will be lucky to make even half that amount, despite being equally enjoyable, if not more. Like the first film, it's a thing of beauty, every shot as bright and colourful as a television demo reel. The villain's plan to accelerate global warming has obvious contemporary relevance. The film made me laugh out loud more times than I could count. I feel rather sorry for Jason Momoa, in that he was hilarious in Fast X, earlier in the year, and hilarious in this, and yet neither really caught fire with audiences.

So what went wrong? Some have put it down to this being a lame duck film in a dead universe, but that makes little sense when the first Aquaman film was praised for being so self-contained. Maybe China just isn't as desperate for American super-heroics as it was four years ago. I suppose that so many characters returning from the first film meant there wasn't a big new actor or a big new villain to hang the marketing on. Personally, I think it's always a mistake to not put a number in the title, so people know they haven't missed anything, or know how to catch up if they have. It worked for Iron Man and the Guardians of the Galaxy.

Whatever the reasons, don't let them put you off. If you enjoyed Aquaman, I think you'll enjoy this one too. And if this is the last time we ever see the DCEU, I'm glad it left that universe in a good place, with optimism for the future and a big smile on Aquaman's face. Stephen Theaker ***

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