Sunday, December 24, 2023

Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom (2023)

Back in June, my write-up of 
The Flash turned out more sanguine than I had been expecting, partly because the review turned into an elegy for the DCEU. But I had given that sentiment so much space on the page because I had almost entirely forgotten that the dying franchise still had two more in the offing: Blue Beetle (which I could not finish, even at no additional cost on Max) and Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom, buried so far in the oubliette of the WB release slate that audiences nigh well forgot it existed. (A third film, Batgirl, was obliterated in exchange for a tax write-off.)
Since James Gunn announced his takeover of the DC cinematic universe in January 2023, DC and WB released four more movies in what Gunn had already announced to be a dead franchise. It turns out that audiences gave up, with diminishing box office returns for Shazam! Fury of the GodsThe Flash, and Blue Beetle, before this latest Aquaman movie ends the series not with a bang but with a paint-by-numbers whimper, a superhero outing that might have been the best superhero movie of the year, had it been released in 2004.
Torn between his duties as a land-dwelling father and as regent of Atlantis, Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa) is bristling under the mantle of Aquaman, even as Black Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) rallies his forces for revenge against the hero who killed his father. His deep-sea excursions have uncovered the Black Trident, an ancient relic connected to unspeakable evil beneath the waves, and only Aquaman’s imprisoned brother Orm (Patrick Wilson) knows where to find him.
After some blunt narration that insists vociferously that yes, Aquaman is cool, Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom begins with Steppenwolf’s “Born to be Wild” and absolutely zero sense of irony about deploying what might be one of the most overplayed songs in movie history. (Never mind the fact that Aquaman fought an entirely different Steppenwolf in Justice League.) It’s as though the film has forgotten that this Aquaman made more than a billion dollars last time around, and we certainly don’t need to be bludgeoned with insistences that Arthur isn’t a joke. Insincere postmodernism is a deadly sin for the superhero genre, but here the overeager earnestness comes off as a little desperate. 
One senses throughout that the corporate editors have been overgenerous with their pruning shears, taking out anything that isn’t rocketing toward the next action setpiece. Case in point, Amber Heard’s Mera, who has been virtually excised from a movie that ought to be about her son, the newborn prince of Atlantis. The first film had a particularly arresting sequence in which Mera used her aquatic powers to weaponize a wine cellar; here, Mera is relegated to waterbending her son’s urine into Aquaman’s open mouth. Her own legal troubles notwithstanding, every time Heard reappears on screen, one has nearly forgotten how her character fits into the plot, and it almost seems like Dolph Lundgren (as her father, King Nereus) has been skinned into the film in her stead. Similarly, it’s been documented that director James Wan shot footage of Ben Affleck’s Batman, then of Michael Keaton’s Batman, only to exclude them both from the final cut, supposedly so as not to confuse audiences. (Never mind that audiences got no fewer than three Batmen and two Wonder Woman cameos this year alone.)
Indeed, the only confusion on the part of the audience is why a decade’s worth of movies is ending here, limping toward an untimely grave. After sixteen movies (of which, maybe seven were good-to-great), I stand stymied at how badly the studio bungled things, beginning with the equally overedited Batman v Superman and spiraling from there. Although given the fact that this is the same superhero franchise that released a literal exquisite corpse in the form of Joss Whedon’s nightmarish Justice League, perhaps we shouldn’t be too surprised that its subsequent releases have come in uneven fits and starts.
Of those false starts, James Wan’s work felt the closest to the Zack Snyder aesthetic while still remaining its own thing. Wan had a knack for deep and brisk world-building, indulging in those Snyderesque slow-motion shots to turn the cinematic frame into a comic book panel. But between the editorial excisions and the draconian exclusion of all things Snyderverse (including an off-camera death that feels both capricious and superfluous), it is hard to see some of that Wan charm. Where the first Aquaman felt fresh and energetic, Lost Kingdom is only serviceable if almost entirely forgettable. We do feel the unique Aquaman flair with the unapologetic inclusion of seahorse Storm, cephalopod Topo, and a piratical hideout that feels like both Jabba’s Palace and the Mos Eisley Cantina all at once. Ditto the downright gonzo casting choices that give us no less than Martin Short and John Rhys-Davies as grotesque fish monsters.
Meanwhile, Momoa seems to be phoning it in, playing himself as much as anything. He’s spent about half of the meager press tour (without so much as a red carpet premiere, in case you hadn’t noticed) conceding that this is very probably his last outing as Aquaman, imploring all the while for someone, anyone, to cast him in James Gunn’s new utopia. Nicole Kidman reappears, contractually obligated and about as enthusiastic as that sentence implies; her appearance in the AMC Theatres promo reel is more expressive, more emotional than her lifeless Queen Atlanna. Patrick Wilson is doing a better job than this movie deserves, while Yahya Abdul-Mateen is underserved by a revenge plot that gets derailed by demonic possession. (His Black Manta, though, still wins a best-in-show prize for a costume design straight out of the comic book pages.)
Even at two hours and change, Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom feels a little too long for its own good. Its action sequences are efficient and entertaining enough, colorful without the typical CGI dark muddle to obscure things. Yet the superhero genre has come so far that Lost Kingdom feels almost like a throwback; if this were the only superhero movie this year, it might have felt sweeter. As it stands, I lost count of how many times the film dramatically cuts to black, how often the plot spun its wheels to introduce some exposition via narration-heavy flashback, and how frequently urine ends up in Jason Momoa’s mouth. (I stopped at three.) At times the film feels like it is blissfully unaware that it is the ostensible swan song for the DCEU.
Then again, at other turns, the film seems hyper-aware that it is the finale for a divisive, often unpopular decade of DC movies that began under the auspices of one idiosyncratic auteur, dethroned and given a second chance while the franchise fell down around us. Staggering toward an inevitable reboot, the film launches this motivational speech at its hero, who might seem to be standing in for Zack Snyder as the torch passes from one king to the next:
You’re not as bad at this as you think. The people of Atlantis are lucky to have you. You were everything I was not. You do the right thing when doing the wrong thing is much easier. You’re willing to ask for help, even from your worst enemy. I know it may not feel like you know what you’re doing sometimes, but keep trusting your instincts. If you lead, Atlantis will follow.

Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom is rated PG-13 for “sci-fi violence and some language.” Directed by James Wan. Written by David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick, James Wan, Jason Momoa, and Thomas Pa’a Sibbett. Based on the DC Comics. Starring Jason Momoa, Patrick Wilson, Amber Heard, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Randall Park, Dolph Lundgren, Temeura Morrison, Martin Short, and Nicole Kidman.

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