The DCEU has finally come to an end. The franchise based on DC comics started with Man of Steel. It went in a lot of directions. There were a few bright spots. There were some bad ones. And there were some films that were divisive at best and middling at worst. But, if we are being honest, Warner Brothers’ superhero series never really recovered after the mistreatment of Zack Snyder. The change of hands, the cancellation of projects, and the sudden decision to reboot everything made matters worse. Just when it seemed like things were about to go in a definite direction, at the time of writing this article, there was news that Warner Brothers might merge with Paramount, thereby rendering all the shuffling moot. So, even though it was difficult to view Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom in a vacuum and treat it as a sequel to Aquaman and Zack Snyder’s Justice League, I did it. Well, the results are not good.
James Wan’s Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom, which he has co-written with David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick, Jason Momoa, and Thomas Pa’a Sibbett, tells the story of Arthur Curry as he is dividing his time between his son, Arthur Jr., and ruling the Kingdom of Atlantis along with his wife, Mera. David Kane, who somehow survived the events of Aquaman, is still looking to kill Arthur for letting his father die. Since his only hope is Atlantean armor and weaponry, he sends Dr. Stephen Shin to the farthest corners of the world, and he ends up finding something ancient. David follows his lead and gets his hands on a black-green trident that puts him under the spell of a dark lord while giving him access to the resources that he needs to rebuild his suit. Five months later, Arthur and the kingdoms that fall under his jurisdiction learn about this development due to the declining condition of the environment. They make a valiant effort to stop Black Manta from stealing the corrosive element called orichalcum, but his lasers and sonic canons prove to be too hot for them to handle. With no other option left, Arthur turns to the imprisoned Orm for help.
It’s impossible to know what happens during the writing phase or the pre-production phase of a movie unless you are a part of the team that’s making it. If you go through the Wikipedia page of Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom, you’ll see the writers claiming that the film was always meant to be about Arthur and Orm, that it was always supposed to be more serious than its predecessor, and that they wanted to send a relevant message. But then there’s also the section about Amber Heard and her off-screen controversy, which ballooned into a massive media frenzy. Now, even though the producers and writers maintained the narrative that none of that affected Heard’s role in the movie, upon watching it, I found her sidelining to be incredibly noticeable. Mera was the co-lead of Aquaman. Given how integral Arthur Junior was to the narrative of Aquaman 2, it was odd to see her role as a mother, a wife, and a queen being relegated to an afterthought, only to bring up Orm, who was enjoyable in the first film because of Patrick Wilson’s performance and who doesn’t really have an arc in this film. His imprisonment has somehow made him good, and he stays good from the beginning to the end. David Kane’s vengeance-filled mission is undermined by the “possessed by a dark lord” trope. And all the environmentalist talk barely counts as window dressing. At the cost of sounding repetitive, I would’ve loved to watch this movie as a sequel to Zack Snyder’s Justice League and Aquaman, but since it actively doesn’t want me to do that, I can’t.
With all that said, I have to admit that James Wan’s filmography isn’t exactly synonymous with “good writing.” It’s actually his ability to create this chaotic and mind-numbing symphony with the visuals and the sounds while crafting some of the most unforgettable moments in cinematic history that has turned him into such an iconic director. Saw had the finale twist, Dead Silence had the human ventriloquist doll, Death Sentence had the one-take scene in the parking lot, Insidious had the demonic jumpscare, The Conjuring had the clapping scare, Furious 7 had the multi-building jump with a car, Aquaman had the trench dive, and Malignant had the cancerous face reveal. As you can see, Wan fumbles it while helming the second film in a franchise, i.e., Insidious: Chapter 2 and The Conjuring 2. Both of those movies felt like something that the studio wanted him to do, not something that he wanted to do. Therefore, he simply aped his own style in the hopes of making something entertaining. By the looks of it, he has done it again in Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom. It’s just Thor: The Dark World, but underwater and with a tinge of environmentalism. There’s even a reference to Loki, which makes the derivative nature of the film so obvious. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a technically proficient movie, albeit with some wonky green screen here and there. The suits, the mechanical monsters, the sets, the choice of colors—it all looks great. But there’s nothing in particular that stood out and made me go, “Yes! I am watching a James Wan film.”
I recently rewatched Aquaman and noticed and acknowledged all the flaws that have been leveled against it. But I also noticed Wan’s magnetic storytelling and penchant for milking every ounce of potential that a scene has. That’s why a brawl in a little room, a duel at an underwater colosseum, a chase through and atop the houses of Sicily, and a full-on Lord of the Rings-esque battle felt impactful and engaging. Barring an invasion in Devil’s Deep, nothing about Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom has that juice. Even the finale is so underwhelming that if someone says that Wan didn’t even direct the entirety of the third act, I will believe them. This lack of passion is evident in the performances as well. Jason Momoa doesn’t have that charm any more. He seems to have used it all in Fast X. Patrick Wilson is surprisingly bland, and I say “surprisingly” because that triple threat doesn’t know how to be bland. Yahya Abdul-Mateen II is okay. He is great while spewing some of the corniest lines after he wears the mask. Amber Heard, Dolph Lundren, Nicole Kidman, and Temuera Morrison, and don’t have a lot of scenes, but they are fine. Randall Park gets a lot of screen time, but he is very one-note, largely due to the writing. Martin Short too has more screen time than his previous outing as the Brine King and there should’ve been more of him in the movie. The ever-menacing Pilou Asbæk is in this film, and his presence is so faint that unless someone points out to you that that’s him on the screen, you won’t even spot him.
As a die-hard fan of James Wan, it feels extremely sad to report that Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom isn’t a good movie. The script is derivative. The storytelling is boring. Even if you see it as a standalone film, certain narrative choices don’t make any sense. The tone is all over the place. The score seems like a rehash of Aquaman’s soundtrack. The action is all right, but after a point, even that ends up feeling repetitive. And to top it all off, there’s a post-credits scene where Orm eats a burger with a cockroach in it. To be honest, that probably summarizes the movie the best. In an ideal world, this sequel to a billion-dollar box-office success would’ve been an equally (or more) successful and fun film. However, due to a certain set of unavoidable external factors, what we have is a film that is pretending to be fun and aiming to be successful, but it has something rotten at its center that’s preventing it from being either of those two things. Well, James Wan has said that he’ll make a return to horror and small-scale films. So, I’ll be looking forward to that instead of the next run-of-the-mill, studio-mandated, theme-park-ride superhero flick.