How to Ruin a Superhero

Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom

We know the DCEU is dead. It’s been dead for years, shambling by on lesser returns from its big-budget blockbusters, failing to match the hype, and results, of the DC Extended UniverseStarted as DC Comics' answer to the MCU, the early films in the franchise stumbled out of the gates, often mired in grim-dark storytelling and the rushed need to get this franchise started. Eventually, though, the films began to even out, becoming better as they went along. Still, this franchise has a long way to go before it's true completion for Marvel's universe. ever since the pandemic. Audiences spoke, and what they said was that they didn’t want a shared universe of interconnected DC ComicsOne of the two biggest comic publishing companies in the world (and, depending on what big events are going on, the number one company), DC Comics is the home of Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, and just about every big superhero introduced in the 1930s and 1940s. superheroes, at least not in the context of the DCEU. Thenx head of the studio, Walter Hamada, was out. James Gunn was brought in. A new plan, and new movies were announced. Everything was going to change, including a new universe of superheroes called the DC Universe. This would be the one, they said. This would bring all the fan-boys to the yard.

Except, when it was announced, DC still had four movies in production: Shazam!: Fury of the Gods, The Flash, Blue Beetle, and Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom. The universe might have been ending but those movies were too far along in production to simply be scrapped. The studio had to put them out to recoup their money and hope, somehow, they were successful (sorry, Batgirl, but you don’t get the same consideration for some reason). Fans knew these films couldn’t go anywhere because the universe was already changing, so the question was: would any of this even matter? Would audiences still show up?

They did not. The Shazam sequel crashed and burned, taking the good will from the first film and completely obliterating it for no reason. The Flash was an over-produced misfire with more that it got wrong than did right. Blue Beetle was fun, but it seems like audiences didn’t know, or care, about the hero, especially when there was no signal from DC that he’d ever show up again. And that left the Aquaman sequel, the last of DC’s slate, and the one that everyone expected would be a smash. The first film made over $1 Bil at the Box office and was, in fact, the single most successful film in the franchise (financially, at least). But then this sequel came out, the final film for the old DCEU and… well, it did okay. It made money, if only barely. It wasn’t a flop. But still, no one seems to care.

This isn’t all the result of the DC Extended UniverseStarted as DC Comics' answer to the MCU, the early films in the franchise stumbled out of the gates, often mired in grim-dark storytelling and the rushed need to get this franchise started. Eventually, though, the films began to even out, becoming better as they went along. Still, this franchise has a long way to go before it's true completion for Marvel's universe. ending, mind you. While I’m sure that has some weight and bearing on it, the film series coming to an end not with a big, world-ending crossover but a dumb lark of a film about a fish guy learning to play nice with his brother, but the bigger issue with Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom isn’t just that its connected universe is dying but that the film itself is bad. The first film wasn’t good, but it was delightfully stupid in a way that made for a fun and watchable movie. This sequel, though, squanders all of that and gives us a tired retread of a film with even less heart, soul, and fun. It’s a vacant, vacuous movie that doesn’t even know why the first film was successful. It is just bad.

The movie opens as Aquaman (the returning Jason Mamoa) catches us up on the details of his life. He’s king of Atlantis and the job isn’t fun. He has to deal with politics and balancing power and dealing with vested interests that don’t want to let him rule the way he wants. He can’t reveal the existence of Atlantis to the outside world even when Climate Change is running rampant and the technology of the undersea kingdom could help. He much prefers avoiding being king and going out as Aquaman, the superhero, fighting bad guys in the ocean and talking to fish. And, even more, he likes spending time with his wife, Mera (Amber Heard), his father (Temuera Morrison), and his baby son. Being a dad is the best part of his day.

However, when a threat rises, Aquaman has to set aside his human life and go be the protector of the oceans in the name of Atlantis. It seems the Black Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) is back, and he’s working with a scientist, Dr. Stephen Shin (Randall Park), to find lost caches of Atlantean treasure. The first piece is a dark trident possessed by the power of Kordax, an undead sorcerer who turned his entire kingdom into fish-zombies during his quest for power. This tribe, the seventh “lost kingdom”, was sealed away, but with Manta having the black trident he now has the power of Kordax. With it, he and his team then go on a hunt for Orichalcum, an ancient Atlantean fuel source that can be used to make weapons, but it also pollutes an absolute ton of greenhouse gasses. As the heat of the Earth rises, Aquaman has to team with his disgraced half-brother, Orm (Patrick Wilson), to find Manta and stop the power of the black trident.

Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom is a mess. It’s an absolute tragic dumpster fire of a film, so bad that it’s hard to sit through with your attention actually focused on the movie. It waffles from one plotline to another, not investing in any of them, all for a very basic “chase the bad guys” plotline that easily could have been resolved at any point in the film if the story wasn’t stretched to fill a two-hour runtime. It has a half a dozen different, interesting ideas that it bounces between, never investing in any of them, leaving the resulting film feeling under-baked and over-developed at the same time. It’s awful.

Much of the issue with the movie is that the parts that do work aren’t focused on enough, while the stuff that is boring and stupid takes up more and more of the screen time.I heartily enjoy Mamoa as Aquaman and I think he has fantastic chemistry with Heard, who plays Mera. When the two of them share the screen together and can play about and banter with each other, the film comes alive. Unfortunately, the producers decided that, because of her messy divorce with Johnny Depp, Heard didn’t deserve to have as big a role in this film so, during production, parts of her story were chopped out and dropped, leaving her as little more than a glorified cameo for whole stretches of the film.

It actually feels like a lot of the great character moments were removed from the movie. Morrison is back as Aquaman’s dad, but he also only gets a couple of scenes and then is largely forgotten. The same can be said for Aquaman’s mom, Atlanna, played by Nicole Kidman. She’s back in this film, but she has two forgettable scenes where she does nothing before telling her son to go find her other son so they can have an adventure together. Then she, too, fades away. So many characters and actors return, but they all take up very little of the screen and you have to be reminded they exist at all (and were even in the first movie) to realize they’re there.

This is all down to the film being worked, and reworked, over and over again as the higher-ups at DC and Warner Bros. desperately tried to make this into a movie that could appease fans. “Maybe this could be the start of the next chapter of the DCEU.” Except, no, that franchise is ending. “Maybe it could take the elements of The Flash and then pick up the rebooted universe to be the first chapter of the DCU.” Except, no, that film bombed so all that material was scrapped. “Maybe this could be a cap to the old film series.” Except then, too, filmed footage with Ben Affleck’s Batman were removed and discarded. Time and again stuff was filmed and then left on the cutting room floor, leaving a mangled film that feels like it has so much it wanted to do and no focus to do it as scene after scene that might have added context and connective material is missing.

What’s left is a generic chase flick with a duo where one half of the team seems utterly bored to be there. Patrick Wilson is a good actor but it feels like he showed up not to play Orm but just to collect a paycheck. His performance is checked out, barely there. He’s acting across from Mamoa, one of the most breezily charismatic actors this side of Ryan Gosling in Barbie, and yet Wilson feels like a cardboard cut out moved around the stage. Any one, any other character in this film, would have been a better fit for the movie than Orm. I legitimately have to wonder if maybe this role was written for Heard’s Mera but then, because she wasn’t allowed to be in most of the movie, her parts were rewritten with some filler footage added in so Orm could take over the duties of playing off Mamoa’s Aquaman. It makes a certain amount of sense since Mera was the other lead in this first film, and the two together were great. Orm is a waste of space.

And this doesn’t even get into the issues with the villain. Black Manta is a cool looking villain, but there is absolutely nothing to his storyline. He’s motivated by revenge against Aquaman for that hero letting Manta’s father die in the first film. So he spends the whole movie working to destroy Aquaman by… destroying the Earth? Not just the oceans, mind you (and, in fact, he never actually pollutes the oceans directly), but the whole planet. “Scientists are baffled at the sudden rise in global temperatures,” talking heads say in the film as an active volcano in the middle of the Pacific spews out giant clouds of green gasses that can be seen for miles. But no, Aquaman has to find his brother, Orm, so the two of them can try and figure out where Manta can be and find a way to stop him from… doing something.

Manta also doesn’t have an arc. He starts the film wanting revenge, ends the film wanting revenge, and never, in any way, is dissuaded from this path. At one point he kidnaps little Aqua-baby so that he can use the blood of the Atlantean kings to unlock the seal holding Kordax in place. This would be the moment, right here as he was preparing to sacrifice the baby, that in a normal movie, one where the villain has a real character arc and motivations, he would stop and question what he was doing. He’d have a moment of clarity before he was betrayed by the big villain controlling him. But no, Manta doesn’t do that and, in fact, goes to his grave still spewing invectives against the Aquaman name. He’s a boring character, start to finish.

Usually I try to think of ways that a film could have been saved, how it could have been put back on track so that the mess we got could have been corrected. Honestly, it’s hard to see how that could happen here. Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom was probably a good film somewhere in its conception, maybe back when the film was a second team-up film for Aquaman and Mera (if that version even existed). This film needed to carry the parts that worked – the charisma between the former leads, the fun that could be had in an undersea world of possibilities – over into the sequel and not mess about trying to be all things for all people and failing to do any of that. A basic, “find the treasure” or “find the villain” story can work as that was the plot of the first film and it was enjoyable enough. This film, though, doesn’t have anything new or fun to say about anything. It’s a boring slog with a tedious co-lead, and it goes nowhere all to wrap up one tiny plot thread for a side-villain from the first movie… and even then it doesn’t give him much of anything to do.

The DCEU, then, comes to a conclusion right about the way you’d expect: with a bloated, over-tooled mess of a film that no one really wanted. Audiences might have made this a success, but at only $434 Mil made (in comparison to the $1.156 Bil for the first movie) it’s only a qualified one. This could have been the last, great chapter for the DCEU before the series transitioned into its next form. Instead, like almost everything else released for this franchise, Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom fails to deliver, flopping hard and leaving everyone underwhelmed.