Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom has finally come to the silver screen this holiday season, and with its arrival comes the end of the DCEU (DC Extended Universe), DC Comics’ failed answer to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. While the MCU has dominated theaters for more than a decade, you’d have to be a humorless misanthrope to not have a place for Superman and the Justice League somewhere in your heart. Aquaman has been a Leaguer since the team’s inception, but by and large its least popular member (discounting Cyborg, who’s more famous as a Teen Titan anyway). Aquaman’s status as a pop culture joke was seemingly remedied by the casting of the affable beefcake Jason Momoa, who returns to the role to deliver a good–not amazing–final outing as the ruler of the seven seas.
Firstly, let’s get my feelings about the Fish King and the DCEU out of the way so you can see where this review is coming from. Comic book fans, like myself, have been iffy about the characterization of Momoa’s Aquaman. Readers of Aquaman’s Rebirth era title will know Arthur Curry (Aquaman’s real name) to be characterized as neurotic, humorless and tightly-wound. He can be brash, prideful, and sure as hell has a chip on his shoulder regarding all those “talking to fish” jokes. And as a neurotic and tightly-wound individual myself, he’s relatable. Contrast that with Momoa’s easy-going and jock-like portrayal of King Arthur, and you can see where the magic is lost.
And when it comes to the DCEU, these movies have always been a joke to me. Yes, there are some gems like Shazam! (2019), James Gunn’s The Suicide Squad (2021) and the first Aquaman (2018), but the universe’s lack of planning, cohesiveness or even respect for its source material was a major turn off. Even disregarding embarrassments like The Flash (2023), Black Adam (2022) and Joss Whedon’s Justice League (2017), the DCEU failed to produce many films that could be deemed “good” by even a casual watcher.
However, Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom is a generally positive experience all around, even with Momoa’s Jockua-man hamming it up whenever he’s on screen. My spoiler-free review is that this movie is little more than dumb fun and action spectacle with some horror and humor sprinkled in there. If you go in expecting any more than that, you’ll be disappointed, but if you’re a fan of the first movie, it’s a safe bet that you’ll enjoy Aquaman’s second adventure. Beyond this point, though, be careful; thar be spoilers in these waters.
SPOILERS for Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom
After the events of the first film, Arthur is king of Atlantis, has married Mera (Amber Heard) and had a child, Arthur Jr. Meanwhile, the villains from the first movie, Arthur’s brother Orm (Patrick Wilson), and Black Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), are back. Orm remains imprisoned while Manta is plotting revenge on Aquaman for killing his father. Arthur’s family, including his dad (Temuera Morrison), mother (Nicole Kidman) and child are caught in the crossfire of Manta’s war path. All the while, Manta is possessed by the spirit of a dead Atlantean king who pushes him further into mania.
This was a very compelling premise to me–mostly. Keeping Orm around from the first film was a stroke of genius. Patrick Wilson easily steals the show here. To me, Momoa’s Aquaman is almost emotionally impenetrable, so Orm provides a more complex character to be invested in. Case in point: Orm goes through an arc and Arthur does not. Orm finds that Arthur is the better king because he leads with compassion and open mindedness while Orm unlearns his prejudices against the surface and welcomes kindness through spending time with his brother.
The middle section of the film is basically a buddy comedy with Arthur as the screwball and Orm as the straight man. The sequence in which Arthur breaks Orm out of a desert prison is one of the movie’s best. They have a petty sibling rivalry that results in some well-executed gags and emotional beats. A standout is when Arthur thinks of all the surface world food he enjoys while Orm thumbs his nose at human cuisine. But his pride can’t allow him to back down when Arthur dares him to eat a mutated cockroach, resulting in Orm having a new taste for insects. Orm was the real tightly-wound freak I was looking for.
These are the most solid aspects of Lost Kingdom; what isn’t so solid is the Lost Kingdom itself. Early in the film, Manta is possessed by the dead king Kordax through an ancient black trident, who makes him even more crazy than he already was. Because of a blood pact made by Aquaman’s ancestor, the first king of Atlantis, Kordax and his people, who were turned into zombie-like creatures, were sealed away. Manta wants to undo the spell through a blood sacrifice of Arthur Jr. and let Kordax’s people loose upon Atlantis and the surface, destroying them both.
Somehow, all of this is really boring. It’s unclear what decisions Manta makes of his own volition or under the influence of Kordax, and this plotline draws focus away from the heart of the movie: Aquaman and his family. While Manta is certainly menacing, he’s made a chump because he never actually kills any named characters. Arthur’s father is left alive when he comes to collect Aquababy, and while both Orm and Mera are harmed by Manta’s eye beams, they’re right back on their feet a few scenes later.
And we were all thinking it: Was Black Manta going to kill that baby?
Of course not. Hopes were high, but alas, like every character that Manta is going to kill, some other character swoops in to stop anything interesting from happening. Orm, Aquadad, Mera, and Aquababy are all saved just before he can perform the killing blow. While the average moviegoer may not want to see casual baby murder in their Aquaman movie, I’d settle for any character death–or even a lasting injury! And why not? We all know that the DCEU is over, so being precious with these characters is not only a moot point, but it actively hamstrings the possibility of narrative consequences. The lack of real stakes makes the third act, where they threaten to kill Mera’s father (oh my!), particularly deflating. Arthur and Manta, protagonist and antagonist, hardly speak or fight before the end of the movie because there’s miles of ancient Atlantean lore between them.
Lost Kingdom experiences death by a thousand cuts. It suffers many minor issues that build to almost derailing the entire thing. It’s juggling too many different plotlines and simply cannot do them all justice. To speculate, this may be the case because this movie is both Aquaman 2 and 3. James Gunn’s DCU reboot is looming, and while Aquaman has a happy ending, he won’t carry over into the new universe. Quite possibly, this film has stitched together two movie plots, one plot being Matna’s revenge and the other being about the Lost Kingdom.
An even more curious aspect of the film is its ending. Atlantis makes itself known to the surface world, indicating a new age of peace and cultural exchange. And while it was definitely set up multiple times that this was the intended direction, it’s undercut by the meta-knowledge that the DCEU is over. Who cares about the future of a universe destined to be destroyed? And it presents other logical problems, like how the world wouldn’t already know about Atlantis since Arthur was in the Justice league or if the League is known globally in the DCEU in the first place. When it’s all laid out like this, I can’t honestly say that I’ll miss the DCEU at all, but if anything, I’ll surely miss Aquaman.
Despite the way this review sounds, I really do like this movie. It won’t blow your mind, but going on an adventure with the Aquafamily is not a bad way to spend two hours. The fact that there are two Aquaman movies at all will always please the comics fan in my heart. While I wish it didn’t hold back as much as it did, Lost Kingdom delivers consistently good action, emotional beats and comedy that, while eye-rolling at times, is always good-natured and wholesome. The world of Atlantis is vibrant, interesting, and features characters that many were genuinely invested in. The DCEU ends on a pleasant note as its final word paves the way for a brighter future for its heroes.
You can watch Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom now in theaters.