"...the film’s strong elements outnumber its weaknesses..."

In Defense of Aquaman

(020224) Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom has received mostly negative reviews, and it performed disappointingly at theatres. Like many recent so called “flop-busters,” it had disastrous box office results when you consider the huge production and marketing costs although it still might recoup more of that cost if it makes a splash when streaming. I am not trying to make waves, but unless the tide turns, the superhero genre is in deep trouble.

Part of the reason for the negative word of mouth might be because the film was heavily re-cut and re-shot after the scandalous publicity involving Amber Heard and her horrendous divorce trial. It seems the mermaid actress original role in the film was heavily reduced by the producers and the studio. Her on-screen father and co-star Dolph Lundren (King Nereus) has said that after seeing the excised scenes, he believes that the original cut would have been far superior. But this version of the  film is still far more effective than the negative word of mouth would indicate. It tells a decent story anchored by a lively, and rambunctious performance by Jason Momoa whose birth name is Joseph Jason Namakeeha Momoa (you can see why he changed it).

Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom is a good, old fashioned, red blooded American adventure film with outlandish and not always convincing monsters, exotic locales, and generous amounts of pseudo-science. It has some of the spirit, naiveté and charm of the old adventure films I loved as a kid on Frasier Thomas’s Family Classics. Movies like Journey to the Center of the Earth, Atlantis: The Lost Continent and Mysterious Island would all comfortably stack up next to this film. Compared to other DCU fare like the weird and violent Titans show, with its bizarrely contained scenes of cannibalism and beheadings, this film is practically upbeat and family friendly.

The film was directed by James Wan who did The Conjuring series films which I mostly liked, and the first Aquaman film which was a shallow mess that I did not connect with at all. This Aquaman sequel clearly shows the director is a horror fan because the look of the dark underwater kingdom Necropolis recalls Mario Bava’s Planet of the Vampires, one of the best-looking cult classic Italian monster films.

The problem with the first Aquaman film was that Momoa’s Aquaman is at his best when he has someone to play off. For instance, the meet up scene with Batman and Aquaman in Justice League was one of the highlights of both versions of the Justice League film because of the chemistry between Affleck and Momoa. This film gives him a perfect foil in Ocean Master (Orm). It also successfully develops the Aquaman and Ocean Master characters making them more interesting and multi layered.

Although it never reaches the heights of
Guardians of the Galaxy 3 or Spiderman: Across the Spider-verse, it gives the sovereign of the seas a decent sending off. Also, Momoa’s Aquaman is infinitely more interesting than his MCU counterpart: Namor. Come to think of it, the film version of Aquaman resembles the comic Namor more than his MCU movie equivalent.

Jason Momoa is the film’s biggest asset and it was great to see him play the oceanic superhero one last time. He is not the greatest actor in the world, but he is the perfect Arthur Curry. He has the right physique for the role and has a natural charm and charisma. When he delivers his dialogue its with gusto, and he always seems to be having a good time. His positive energy is infectious even when his character is supposed to be cynical, which he was mostly in the Justice League film. I don't think I'm overstating that I feel Momoa’s portrayal of the sea king is right up there with the finest on-screen superhero portrayals such as: Christopher Reeve’s Superman, Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine, Chadwick Boseman’s Black Panther, Gail Gadot’s Wonder Woman, Krystin Ritter’s Jessica Jones, Benedict Cumberbatch’s Dr. Strange, and Robert Downey Jr’s Iron Man. I would have included Margot Robbie’s Harley and John Cena’s Peace Maker but I don’t quite see them as heroes, but their interpretations are also on point.

Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom starts our light and humorous with the sea protector telling us in a voice over about his new life as a dad and as the new ruler of the seven kingdoms. There is another kingdom that has been lost and forgotten, which will be revealed as the movie progresses. He presides over an undersea senate-like political body and many of the members have an aggressive view toward land dwellers while the sea king wants to peacefully coexist with them. It seems like his Justice League and fatherhood experiences mellowed him out a bit and the change is all for the better.

This film’s big heavy is Black Manta and he isn’t terribly interesting although he looks striking. His appearance and motivations were all set up in the previous film, he still wants revenge because he blames Curry for his dad’s death. Unfortunately, there isn’t much to him beyond his sinister voice and revenge motives and he has the same MO as a thousand other more interesting villains. Unlike Ocean Master, Manta is completely flat and one dimensional. In a way he is like the Marvel Comics Black Knight/Dane Whitman who carries a cursed ebony blade. Manta also wields a cursed weapon-the black trident. Both objects corrupt the user and eventually take them over, and that curse defines both characters.

But what really sustains the films is the relationship between Aquaman and his rebellious brother, Orm, the Ocean Master. Orm is in jail for attempting to take over the surface world which he sees (with good reason) as a threat. In a way he is like the undersea equivalent of the Black Panther's Eric Kilmonger who was also a good villain with relatable motives. There are many parallels with the Black Panther film but many of these character dynamics and relationships here were set up in the Aquaman comics long before Jack Kirby created T’Challa.

In order to defeat Manta, Curry must break the black sheep of the family, his estranged brother Orm, out of a maximum security prison. To help get into the jail he uses a suit which gives him the chameleon like ability to blend in with his background (viewers might rightfully ask why he does not use it all the time.) Initially, the two opposites dislike each other intensely-their sibling relationship reminding me more of the Thor and Loki dynamic in the MCU. However here their relationship quickly evolves into a 48 Hours buddy film vibe. Patrick Wilson (from The Full Monty and Angels in America) who plays Ocean Master has great on-screen chemistry with Momoa. The prim, proper, and reserved Orm is the film’s Margaret Dupont. He is the stiff upper lipped straight man for the irreverent, vulgar and spontaneous Curry. Gradually a tolerance and even a mutual respect seems to develop between them, but it could all be a ruse and Orm could be playing along in order to escape or regain his thrown perhaps over Curry’s body.

The film has many scenes of unexpected humor. Aquaman is alarmed when he is brought to a pirate hangout because he has put so many of their kind in jail. It’s very much like putting Batman in jail when he was surrounded by all criminals he put there. Also, Martin Short has a hilarious cameo playing get this a criminal leader who is a cross between Jabba the Hut and the Gillman from Creature from the Black Lagoon. He looks cheesy, kind of like a talking cardboard cutout, but it was wonderful to see Short in such an unexpected wacky and visually inventive cameo.

The film treats Aquman’s world like a separate reality which is both a strength and a weakness. I usually like a comic films to stand on their own and it's heroes to inhabit their own realities. Here neither the Justice League nor any of the other DCU superheroes are ever mentioned, even though even the casual viewer knows Aquaman exists in that universe. While the film brings the Aquaman saga to a satisfactory conclusion, it does not tie up loose ends of the DC Extended Universe at all, failing completely to bring the DC side of a story to a satisfactory conclusion. Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom is the last of the films set in the DC Universe started in Zack Snyder's
Man of Steel. The Snyder-verse ends like a balloon losing all of its air with only a few of the expectations it brought on being fulfilled.

Although the film’s strong elements outnumber its weaknesses, I don't feel it merits spending fifteen dollars on it, especially when so many great but underexposed Oscar nominees are still out. But it is lively and energetic, plus it moves along nicely, and tells an entertaining story. If you are a fan of superhero films, it is at least worth a look on DVD or streaming.

Directed by:    James Wan
Written by:    Screenplay by David Leslie Johnson-
 McGoldrick. From a story by James Wan, David
 Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick, Jason Momoa &
 Thomas Pa'a Sibbett. Based on the DC Comic
 character created by Mort Weisinger & Paul
Starring:    Jason Momoa, Patrick Wilson, Amber Heard
Released:    12/19/2023 (wide)
Length:    124 minutes
Rating:    PG13 for sci-fi action/violence and brief language

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Review © 2024 Alternate Reality, Inc.

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