Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom (2023)

by - December 22nd, 2023 - Movie Reviews


Chaotic Aquaman Sequel is an Undersea Comic Book Trainwreck

Trainwreck or train wreck [‘trein-rek]
1. an accident in which a train or trains are severely damaged
2. slang: a person who has experienced a personal failure, disaster, etc.
3. slang: a disastrous situation, occurrence, or process

By all accounts, Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom is not the comic book sequel director and co-writer James Wan intended on making when filming commenced back in June of 2021. Warner Bros. and its DC Films division went through major upheavals during that time, COVID caused production delays, and at least three reported reshoots forced the original December 2022 release date to move a full year. The plot was apparently overhauled, major characters saw their screen time reduced to almost nothing, and nearly every connection to the larger DC extended universe (DCEU) was completely excised.

Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom (2023) | PHOTO: Warner Bros.

Add all of that up, and the word “trainwreck” certainly fits. All three definitions, even, as there’s a blink-or-you’ll-miss-it set piece in which Aquaman (Jason Momoa) saves some Atlantean public transportation from being destroyed by his archenemy David Kane aka Black Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II). But it’s the two slang definitions that are the most appropriate. For Wan, this has to be as heartbreaking a directorial endeavor as anything he’s ever experienced. As for the film itself, well, calling it a visually chaotic mess would be considerably underselling the reality of the situation.

The strange thing? I got the feeling that Wan, his production team, and likely Momoa himself all kind of said “screw it” at some point and decided to just let their collective freak flags fly. This last hurrah for the DCEU before its top-to-bottom 2025 reboot may be a disaster, but it’s anything but a boring one. At barely two hours, Wan keeps the pace popping and exposition to a minimum. Characters spout what is happening and why in blasts of unhinged word vomit, and there are moments when Wan utilizes silent film techniques to visually tell his story, so he can excise much of the dialogue (or have it spoken entirely off-screen or via narration).

This makes this second solo Aquaman adventure far more watchable than it has any right to be. Much like he did with Fast X, Momoa puts the entire sequel on his broad shoulders and carries it with comically joyous aplomb. Wan regular Patrick Wilson (of the Conjuring and Insidious universes) — returning as Aquaman’s duplicitous brother Orm — adds able support, and Abdul-Mateen makes the most of his limited screen time and actually attempts to give a complex, three-dimensional performance. As for the director, he digs into his horror bag of tricks whenever allowed, especially early on, when a sequence featuring a menacing sea beast in an unexplored ice cave is far more frighteningly intense than it has any right to be.

The plot? It doesn’t matter, but it has something to do with a lost undersea kingdom that the Black Manta stumbles into, which allows him to take possession of the fabled “Black Trident,” which could help accelerate climate change, unleash a mutated demonic menace, and unintentionally lead to the end of the world for creatures both above and below the sea. Aquaman and Orm join forces to stop him, and every now and then, characters from the previous film (including Amber Heard’s Queen Mera, Nicole Kidman’s Atlanna, and Dolph Lundrgren’s King Nereus) randomly show up to lend a helping hand.

Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom (2023) | PHOTO: Warner Bros.

The production values are high, and there are passages of eye-popping visual effects wizardry that are undeniably impressive, most notably a stretch in which Aquaman breaks Orm out of his underground desert prison past a cadre of monstrous skeletal guards straight out of a Ray Harryhausen stop-motion fantasy-adventure from the 1960s. Composer Rupert Gregson-Williams (Hacksaw Ridge) returns and delivers a suitably adrenaline-filled (mostly) electronic score, and production designer Bill Brzeski (Iron Man 3) conjures up a handful of gorgeously gonzo sets, not the least of which is Black Manta’s secret volcanic lair, which is like a combination of a James Bond SPECTRE hideout and something straight out of Nazi bunker from Raiders of the Lost Ark.

None of this makes Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom any less of a trainwreck, however. There are several instances where much of this sequel comes off like a Hot Shots– or Top Secret!–style parody of superhero flicks, and others where it’s nothing more than a frenetically edited monstrosity that barely holds together. This final dive into the undersea world of the DCEU implodes under the pressure likely generated by all the behind-the-scenes tinkering. As last hurrahs go, this one’s lost at sea.

– Review reprinted courtesy of the SGN in Seattle

Film Rating: 1½ (out of 4)

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