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Aquaman flounders in The Lost Kingdom

Topo innocent

Aquaman looking pissed in his classic gold and green glove costume in The Lost Kingdom Image: Warner Bros. Pictures/DC Comics
Matt Patches is an executive editor at Polygon. He has over 15 years of experience reporting on movies and TV, and reviewing pop culture.

It was around the third time Jason Momoa was wiping piss off his face that I felt truly unmoored from Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom.

I was all in on the original Aquaman, even putting it in my top 10 of 2018, but to see MY MAN not once, not twice, but thrice wipe excreta off his face and hold for laughs sent me spiraling. I’m not even sure if the liquid that Topo the octopus squirts from his underside onto Momoa’s Arthur Curry during their Sahara desert adventure is piss, exactly, but it conjured horrors from earlier in the movie, when a small baby pee-pees on his Aquadaddy’s face, and mom Mera (Amber Heard) uses her waterbending abilities to really just soak his ass. I’m not anti-piss joke, but in the grand scheme of a DC comic book adventure, three feels a bit cheap. For a movie that likely cost the GDP of a small nation to produce, the whole thing feels that cheap.

The Lost Kingdom picks back up with Arthur after the upheaval in Atlantis that left his brother Orm (Patrick Wilson), aka Ocean Master, imprisoned and the DC hero wearing the crown of the underwater kingdom. In an opening prologue faithfully adapted from Thor: Love and Thunder, Arthur catches the audience up on his life juggling parental and political duties, and how he’s drowning in them both. At one point, while crushing a few cans of Guinness (a product placement motif in the film), Arthur salutes his old man, played once again by Temuera Morrison, for raising a son all by himself: “To single dads!” The blunt-but-sweet moment is the last trace of character in The Lost Kingdom, which reduces Momoa’s original rambunctious, rough-around-the-edges rogue down to a mugging one-liner machine who makes Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban references. Aquaman, king of Atlantis and elder millennial.

Orm and Aquaman stand guarded by hammerhead shark people in The Lost Kingdom Image: Warner Bros. Pictures/DC Comics

Director James Wan threw everything at the first Aquaman, orchestrating a controlled chaos that mixed Chinese donghua flavors with American blockbuster bravado and faux-Shakespearean drama. He returns to The Lost Kingdom with similar vision but none of the verve, perhaps because so much of the film feels like recycled material. The sequel offers a repeat villain in Yahya Abdul-Mateen II’s Black Manta, who is now cursed by the specter of a dark-magic water king (aka his entire personality is “seething over a need for power”) and is hoarding the high-powered element orichalcum, a word said approximately 150 times throughout the movie. A reformed Orm is also back, joining Arthur on his quest to punch stuff. Mera, Atlanna (Nicole Kidman), and King Nereus (Dolph Lundgren) pop up in a few scenes that play like quick-time events without the thrill of pressing X. The script, by Wan’s regular collaborator David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick, can’t find any tension or spark in the growing relationships of any of the characters, leaving The Lost Kingdom to just feel like more.

Momoa and Wilson make up for that bit. Forty-five minutes in, when Arthur finally gets his brother into the mix, The Lost Kingdom becomes a buddy cop movie. Tango & Cash fans will know exactly what Wan was going for, and Momoa and Wilson have the chemistry, even if they’re basically stuck in a Jumanji movie while navigating Black Manta’s overgrown island lair. Wan has his fun, too: the villain’s orichalcum-processing factory, naturally built in a volcano, is tricked out with retro-future tech that nods to everything from Captain Nemo’s Nautilus to the War of the Worlds tripods. And the filmmaker fully indulges in expanding the role of Topo the drum-playing Octopus, who, despite having to spew on Aquaman for a gag, is also a spy now — and we love that for him.

Wan found real beauty and horror as he explored the ocean’s many kingdoms in the first Aquaman, and while the backdrops and fully animated characters in The Lost Kingdom are artfully rendered, they have little impact. Atlantis’ mostly CG population feels more like crowd filler than a living society. The aquatic chase sequences feel encumbered by laser blur and the hazy veil of seawater. Ship-on-ship battles lack any sense of physics that would make them tense. Even the swimming feels slower and less dynamic, possibly due to the decision to replace wire effects with motion capture. Whatever the reason, nothing pops. The effects feel like goopy pollutants in the water.

Aquaman fights Black Manta with a trident but looks a little exhausted in The Lost Kingdom Image: Warner Bros. Pictures/DC Comics

While Momoa remains a towering force and Wilson got absolutely ripped for his chance to play a good guy, neither actor gets a star moment to crack some skulls (despite Aquaman proclaiming it as his No. 1 passion). An early fight scene is interrupted by Arthur acting out the fight with action figures for his son. Set-pieces later on all feel like variations of Aquaman and Orm outrunning big beasties. There’s a split second of Arthur using his trident to do some mild wire-fu, but Wan always finds an excuse to cut away. Great action scenes have tempo and punctuation, but so often, The Lost Kingdom feels like lo-fi spectacle to study to.

I can’t write off Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom. Wan and Johnson-McGoldrick go even harder on the climate change themes that gave Aquaman some unexpected meat. Black Manta grumbles about how his plans to accelerate the warmth of the Earth would have happened one way or another. Randall Park as Manta’s unwilling accomplice is around to cower at the disasters they create, a proxy for a familiar helplessness. Footage of a collapsing ice shelf is deeply disturbing, even if the explanation of a Lovecraftian horror under the ice quickly snaps the audience back to the film’s unreality. Momoa tries his best to deliver speeches about how we should all save the world, but footage of flooding and talk of outbreaks speak louder than his words. If the themes and the action didn’t sit like oil and water, The Lost Kingdom could have... well, made any amount of sense.

The sequel to Aquaman is a total bummer for those of us who enjoyed Aquaman. Wan has proven himself on every scale, but in trying to carve out another adventure in this universe, he feels a bit stuck. There’s more thrown at the wall yet again — a Jabba’s Palace sequence with some fishy ruffians, an undead army that looks straight out of Ralph Bakshi’s Lord of the Rings — but little sticks, and comedy is the crutch. (Did I mention there are three piss jokes in this movie for some reason?) This might be the predicament of an ongoing Aquaman franchise, if DC ever tries again: When your sequel is stuck in the ocean, the only way to go is down.

Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom opens in theaters on Dec. 22.

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