The DCEU has now officially ended in December 2023. But before we say our goodbyes to a cinematic universe filled with ups and downs (and maybe a few more downs than ups, if we’re being honest), there’s still one final movie to watch. Aquaman and The Lost Kingdom is the second of what was once supposed to be a trilogy of Aquaman movies by James Wan, now cut short by the reboot of the universe. And while between the two movies, I do think the Aquaman franchise was one of the better ones within the DCEU, I won’t pretend I’m too sad to see it go either.
While some time has passed between the end of the first movie and the beginning of Aquaman and The Lost Kingdom, not much has changed. Aquaman (Jason Momoa) is still sitting on the throne of Atlantis, completely out of his depth on how to be a king. His brother Orm (Patrick Wilson) is still trapped in some prison in the middle of nowhere. And Black Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) is still on a quest for vengeance to kill Aquaman. What has changed is that Aquaman has a child now, and that Manta, after teaming up with Dr. Stephen Shin (Randall Park) and searching the planet for a way to fight the Atlanteans, has found the mysterious Black Trident. A mythical artifact from a lost time that drives him mad, and alongside it, ancient technology that the world was not, and still isn’t, ready for.
The original Aquaman from 2018 was a messy movie with a screenplay that would fall apart under any scrutiny, and yet despite that, it was surprisingly fun, thanks to its full commitment to the silly, albeit stupid, fun that a superhero movie can be. And of course, James Wan being one of the more talented blockbuster directors doesn’t hurt either. He clearly knows how to shoot action and is able to create some interesting visuals, especially when you consider some of the stunning design work he was able to create here in cooperation with the movie’s art department. Why do I mention all of this about the first film? Well, because I could say almost the exact same things about its sequel.
The screenplay might actually be even worse this time around, with a messy plot that’s all over the place, shifting from one location to the next with no real sense of why we’re here now. Then there are the characters who, unless your name is Aquaman, Orm, or Black Manta, don’t matter in the slightest. And even if you’re lucky enough to be one of those three, you’re still not much more than a cardboard cutout that can do some cool fighting and motivations that can be summed up in one word each.
And yet, despite all that, I had a lot of fun with Aquaman and The Lost Kingdom. Because while the writing might’ve been even worse than the first one, all the creatures, the production design, and just the embrace of anything that might otherwise be considered silly or cheesy are even stronger here. And within those elements, Aquaman and The Lost Kingdom does much more exciting things than a lot of superhero movies do, especially looking at what we got in 2023.
More than anything, the design of the many weird creatures here excited me. It’s so apparent from watching this movie that its director, James Wan, comes from a horror background. Whether it’s the sand demon soldiers that ride giant scorpion centipedes in the desert, the fish thugs of the underwater casino, the mutated animals on a lost island, or the lich king from Manta’s visions, they all look incredible and charm me with their designs, which prove more than anything that James Wan’s cancelled “Trench” spin-off movie would’ve probably been one of the best projects in the entire DCEU. The designs of the new underwater ships are equally stunning. Just like in the first movie, they mix the designs of sea creatures with high-tech brutalism that shines brighter than anything this deep in the ocean reasonably should.
But it’s not just the original designs that delighted me. Aquaman and The Lost Kingdom wears its influences on its sleeve. There’s a little bit of Star Wars (1977) and Indiana Jones (1981). Some Jules Verne, and maybe even a bit of Ray Harryhausen. The uniforms the team of evil scientists wear are straight out of Mario Bava’s Planet of the Vampires (1965), and at no point does anyone ever come along with some annoying superhero quip to remind us how silly this looks. It is silly just as much as it is fun, and the movie owns that.
With those references, Aquaman and The Lost Kingdom reminds us what it really is. Because while it might have all the bells and whistles of a superhero movie—and it does admittedly fall into some of the common traps of the genre as well—more than anything, this is just a fun old-school sci-fi/fantasy adventure film with b-movie charm. And it’s a pretty fun one at that, despite the general messiness of the whole thing.