Movie Review: If this is goodbye, ‘Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom’ keeps its trident high

December 21, 2023  -It’s perhaps appropriate that the latest Aquaman movie is about a lost kingdom. In many ways, this mini-franchise is just that, a Jason Momoa kingdom that could just quietly sink below the cinematic waves.

At least Momoa is going out swinging in “Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom,” an overstuffed tale that goes from desert to ice, steals from other movies like a coked-up magpie and says goodbye at the near-operatic level of a mid-franchise Marvel flick. Much of it doesn’t happen underwater at all.

This image released by Warner Bros. Pictures shows Yahya Abdul-Mateen II in a scene from "Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom." (Warner Bros. Pictures via AP)
Yahya Abdul-Mateen II (Warner Bros. Pictures via AP)
This image released by Warner Bros. Pictures shows Yahya Abdul-Mateen II in a scene from "Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom." (Warner Bros. Pictures via AP)
Black Manta (Warner Bros. Pictures via AP

“Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom” is likely the final installment of the King of Atlantis’ storyline for a time. The new heads of DC Studios plan nearly a dozen film and TV comic book projects in the next decade and none have Aquaman front and center.

Holding it all together is Momoa, and it’s hard to overstate his charisma, humor and presence. DC Studios may regret deep-sixing this franchise if it doesn’t find a home for an actor who actually looks like a real-life superhero. But, then again, they bungled it with Dwayne Johnson, too.

“Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom” is equivalent to “Thor: Love and Thunder” or “Fast X” — an attempt to raise the level of the last decent entry by keeping the same overall plot but just throwing money at it — more locations, more fights, more armies led by commanders in medieval-looking suits of armor riding underwater beasts.

In 2018 — the last time Aquaman owned the movie theaters — he battled his half-brother in the Ring of Fire, trekked to the Sahara to locate a clue about the Sacred Trident, wrecked most of Sicily, found the Hidden Sea, reunited with his mom and united Atlantis, along the way slaughtering more sea creatures than the entire Red Lobster empire.

This time, Aquaman — again under director James Wan — must reconcile with his brother (Patrick Wilson, the Ken doll of the deep) and hunt down the villain from the first film, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II as Black Manta, who is using ancient technology to destroy the globe, super mad at the murder of his dad.

The screenplay by returning writer David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick throws everything at the sinking kitchen sink, including a cute sidekick (a genetically altered octopus) and a rare metallic ore named Orichalcum, described as “the greatest power in human history.” It’s basically a Kinko’s copy of Eternium or Vibranium. Amber Heard is back as Aquaman’s wife but this new movie is a brother-brother movie and so she’s somewhat sidelined.

Johnson-McGoldrick unfortunately likes referencing other, better movies in the dialogue, like “Cast Away” and “Harry Potter,” and layering in terrible puns like, “Put a hook in it.” The sparks come from Momoa and Wilson needling each other like siblings do. Aquaman, at his heart, is a goofy, beer-drinking, motorcycle-loving bouncer while his brother is so uptight he’d bring his own coaster to the bar.

 This image released by Warner Bros. Pictures shows Jason Momoa in a scene from "Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom." (Warner Bros. Pictures via AP)
Is this the last time Momoa plays Aquaman? (Warner Bros. Pictures via AP)

The less gloopy visuals and plot liberally steal from “The Matrix,” “Pirates of the Caribbean,” “Star Wars” — Martin Short voices a Jabba the Hutt monster fish — “Jumanji,” “Spider-Man” and “Fast & Furious.” But credit goes to layering in some messaging about global warming — toxic algae, greenhouse gasses and rising acidity levels. There’s an overused song this time — “Born to be Wild” by Steppenwolf — but it’s not clear if that’s for Aquaman, the man who wants to kill him or the Earth.

With rival Marvel at a bit of a crossroads — especially in the wake of its dropping of actor Jonathan Majors — DC, which has suffered its own woes with “The Flash,” “Blue Beetle” and “Shazam: Fury of the Gods” in 2023 — gets a chance to end the year on a high. ”Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom” might not be all that but it keeps its trident high even as the sea reclaims its hero.

“Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release that opens in theaters this weekend, is rated PG-13 for “sequences of sci-fi violence, action and some language.” Running time: 143 minutes. Two and a half stars out of four.

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