Monday, February 26, 2024

“AQUAMAN AND THE LOST KINGDOM”

THE STORY – After failing to defeat Aquaman the first time, Black Manta wields the power of the mythic Black Trident to unleash an ancient and malevolent force. Hoping to end his reign of terror, Aquaman forges an unlikely alliance with his brother, Orm, the former king of Atlantis. Setting aside their differences, they join forces to protect their kingdom and save the world from irreversible destruction.

THE CAST – Jason Momoa, Patrick Wilson, Amber Heard, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Randall Park, Dolph Lundgren, Temuera Morrison, Martin Short & Nicole Kidman

THE TEAM – James Wan (Director) & David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick (Writer)

THE RUNNING TIME – 124 Minutes


One of the best things about James Wan’s 2018 “Aquaman” is that it doesn’t take itself too seriously. Aquaman is one of the silliest superheroes in all comic books, King of the underwater city of Atlantis, who can telepathically communicate with all sea creatures. Wan understood that in order to bring the character and his world to the screen, he could not ground it in gritty reality, as Christopher Nolan did with Batman in “The Dark Knight.” He likewise understood that he could trade in neither the self-congratulatory irony of Joss Whedon’s “The Avengers” nor the self-conscious mythic grandiosity of Zack Snyder’s “Man of Steel.” No, the best way to make a film based on Aquaman was to embrace its silliness and capture the excitement and wonder many of us felt as children opening our first comic books. “Aquaman” promised viewers nothing but a good time and delivered on that promise. Five years later, the sequel “Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom” takes the same approach to its benefit. In a December marked by a plethora of self-serious prestige pictures angling for awards, it’s a breath of fresh air to have a film in cinemas that does not have a single ounce of seriousness in its muscular body. Make no mistake, the film has stakes, and it approaches them with the proper weight, but Wan (working from a story he collaborated on with Thomas Pa’a Sibbett and star Jason Momoa, and finally scripted by David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick) never forgets that this is a film in which a hero with the title Ocean Master rides into battle on a giant glowing seahorse and is accompanied by an octopus who opens doors for him. The film may tack on a sincere plea for global cooperation to combat global warming in the end, but Wan’s primary goal is to entertain in as breezy a manner as possible, and he succeeds.

After the events of the first film, Arthur Curry (Momoa) is living a relatively happy life on land and under the sea – he and his wife Mera (Amber Heard) have given birth to a baby boy, Arthur, Jr., who is already able to communicate with fish. The kingdoms of the ocean are living together in peace and harmony, but Arthur wants to unite the land and sea by making the presence of Atlantis known to the world, and the head of the law-making Council is vehemently opposed to this idea. Elsewhere, David Kane (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), aka Black Manta, is still on his mission of revenge against Arthur for killing his father. In his search for Atlantan tech to fix his suit, he comes across a broken black trident that, pulsing with green energy, promises him a total victory over Arthur and Atlantis if he helps free the spirit that previously owned the trident. In order to do so, he must refine a rare ore in a process that speeds up global warming and puts Atlantis at risk. Alongside his brother Orm (Patrick Wilson), will Arthur be able to protect his people from David and stop the ancient evil force controlling him through the trident?

The fact that this is a superhero movie means that there’s little doubt as to the answer to that question, and while Black Manta and his minions are formidable, the film takes great pains to assure us that none of our beloved characters are in any serious danger. This results in action scenes that may lack suspense but make up for it with good-natured humor and some cleverly choreographed stunts. In 3D, the visual effects look even choppier than in the first film, though, which hurts a lot considering that such a large percentage of the film’s environments are digitally created. Superhero films have long struggled with CGI that looks weightless, and the first “Aquaman” was particularly egregious in that regard, the aggressively ambitious camera movements only adding to the unreality of the visual effects. The action scenes in this sequel have largely abandoned the almost video-game-like quality of those in the first film, which leaves them feeling easier to follow but also blander. That doesn’t mean that the action scenes are terrible, but they do lack a bit of excitement. Instead of being thrilling, they are merely fun.

Of course, being “merely fun” isn’t something that should be taken for granted, especially considering how many films of this ilk have abandoned all sense of fun in favor of a grim pomposity that reeks of desperation to have comic books and the films based on them seen as “serious,” “real” art. This point shouldn’t have to be made: Comics have always been a legitimate art form, and critical appreciation for comic book storylines has only grown over the years, especially in the decade and a half since “The Dark Knight.” It’s refreshing to see a film based on comic book characters without the pretensions of being serious or telling an allegorical story about real-world issues.

“Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom” only cares about being a rip-roaring good time in the spirit of its joyous mountain of a star. Momoa’s effusive personality overflows as Aquaman and his boundless good humor clearly influenced the tone of this film. “Aquaman” never shied away from its own silliness, but “The Lost Kingdom” positively revels in it, calling out its own ridiculousness whenever it can. In the wrong hands, this could be wearying, but it works here thanks to the guileless charm of the performers, especially Momoa. He and Wilson make for a great team, with Wilson the comedically exasperated straight man to Momoa’s brash comedic energy. Abdul-Mateen takes the opportunity to be the lead villain and runs with it, giving an intense, charismatic performance that makes you wish they had done even more with the character. Manta gets some fun, tongue-in-cheek lines that Abdul-Mateen delivers with the eager bluster of an actor having the time of his life playing a bad guy. Reprising her role as the now-former Queen of Atlantis, Kidman cannot escape how out of place she feels in this world. Seeing the Oscar winner do battle in the ocean is fun, but most of her limited screen time here is spent giving exposition that not even she can infuse with personality. There’s no real character for her to play, and thus, she sticks out like a bit of a sore thumb.

On the whole, though, the entire ensemble understood the assignment. “Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom” fully embraces the loopy logic and creative spirit of comic books in a way that feels genuine and fun, and it wouldn’t work at all without a cast fully committed to that embrace. The story itself is a grab bag of different tropes mashed together like toy boats in a child’s bath, and the embrace of cliché grounds the film in the world and tone it wants to create. The film never looks down on its material or its audience – in fact, it’s constantly nudging them excitedly and giggling with glee at each new element. This energy admittedly won’t work for everyone, but in the current cinematic landscape, it comes across as more charming than annoying. With the immensely charismatic Momoa at its center, “Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom” proves Hollywood hasn’t forgotten how to have fun with its franchise tentpoles. In fact, the film’s whole-hearted embrace of comic book ridiculousness may be just the shot in the arm the genre needs right now.

THE RECAP

THE GOOD - Embraces its inherent ridiculousness with complete sincerity while respecting its source comic.

THE BAD - Dodgy special effects and unimaginative storytelling.

THE OSCARS - None

THE FINAL SCORE - 7/10

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Dan Bayer
Dan Bayer
Performer since birth, tap dancer since the age of 10. Life-long book, film and theatre lover.

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<b>THE GOOD - </b>Embraces its inherent ridiculousness with complete sincerity while respecting its source comic.<br><br> <b>THE BAD - </b>Dodgy special effects and unimaginative storytelling.<br><br> <b>THE OSCARS - </b>None <br><br> <b>THE FINAL SCORE - </b>7/10<br><br>"AQUAMAN AND THE LOST KINGDOM"