Review: Jason Momoa Returns to the Water for Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom, a Fitting if Chaotic Sequel

Considering the original Aquaman is the highest-grossing DC film of all time, it’s hard to understand why a sequel took five years since that film's release to arrive. But a lot has changed in that time, including that star Jason Momoa will likely not get the chance to play this character again, given that the entire slate of characters that has surrounded him since he was introduced as Aquaman in Justice League has been dismantled to make room for whatever DC-universe-runner James Gunn will bring to the table in the coming years. Still, as a sendoff film for Momoa (assuming that’s what it is) and for this iteration of DC superheroes, Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom isn’t half bad, even if it is a bit of a chaotic mess.

For one thing, it’s a proper sequel, dealing with storylines and issues brought up in the first film five years ago. Arthur Curry (Momoa) has settled into his role as the King of Atlantis, although he hates that even he must answer to a counsel any time he makes a move (no dictators allowed under the ocean either). He’s also balancing his life as a leader with his above-ground life as a husband to Mera (a barely-there Amber Heard) and father to the newborn Arthur Jr., who is frequently looked after by grandfather Tom Curry (Temuera Morrison) and seems to have burgeoning powers of his own to telepathically talk to sea creatures. Also returning in small doses is Arthur’s Atlantean mother Atlanna (Nicole Kidman) and King Nereus (Dolph Lundgren).

But the film also picks up the first film’s storyline involving Black Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), who is driven to get revenge on Aquaman for allowing his father to die (albeit in the commission of a terrorist act). In order to do that, he enlists the help of scientist Dr. Stephen Shin (Randall Park) to find Atlantis, use its technology to repair his power suit, and kill not just Arthur but everyone Arthur loves, too. The team Manta assembles accidentally stumbles upon the mythic Black Trident, which unleashes an ancient and malevolent force that possesses him to uncover a long-dormant power source that will melt the polar ice caps and kill all surface dwellers (and perhaps most water dwellers) in the process.

Admittedly, the plot is far too complicated for a two-hour movie, but in many ways, Aquaman and the Lost City feels like the most comic book-ish of all of the DC films to date. It’s outrageous and ridiculous, but it also takes big swings, has some fairly epic battles, and pulls in creatures and weapons that we simply haven’t seen before in these movies. The most important story thread that this film picks up from the first film is the one about Arthur’s complicated relationship with his half-brother Orm (Patrick Wilson), who has been held in a desert prison since being defeated. But once Arthur and his squid sidekick Topo set Orm free and reintroduce him to water, he agrees to become their ally in order to defeat Manta and save Earth.

Directed once again by James Wan and written by David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick (screenwriter on the Orphan movies, as well as the second and third Conjuring films), Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom has tonal issues, with Momoa clearly pressing to keep things lighthearted and funny at times, even when the story demands something more serious in its approach. At the same time, it’s Momoa’s approach and enthusiasm for this character that make Aquaman the character in any way interesting and not simply a punchline. Also, it seems pretty clear that at some point, this film was going to incorporate some mention of how Arthur balanced his home and kingly duties with his role in the Justice League, but since that team doesn’t really exist any longer, it seems to have been stripped out of this movie. That connective tissue is noticeably, sadly missing.

I’m not going to pretend this movie is anything new or great, but it does occasionally manage to be fun and subversive enough to act as a solid sequel and a fitting sendoff to an extended superhero universe that never really found its footing with any consistency. At least Momoa makes it fun at times.

This film is now playing in theaters.

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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.