All year long, rumors have circled “Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom” as being the final nail in the genre’s coffin; reports of poor test screenings, claims of several rounds of reshoots to both add in and remove more famous DC heroes (none of whom appear in this final cut), and a half-hearted marketing campaign all seemed to confirm the worst. The reality is different. The “Aquaman” sequel isn’t a disaster because it shows any signs of wear and tear — instead, this generic but largely functional tale suffers due to everybody onscreen clearly assuming this is the end of the road, all resigned to failure even as they’re shooting it. James Gunn and Peter Safran may be scrapping the DCEU and starting again from scratch, but it’s strange to see a film that’s already accepted this fate, devoid of any signs of life that would make the powers that be reconsider their decision.
Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa) is now the king of Atlantis — and he absolutely hates it. After taking the throne from his tyrannical brother, Orm (Patrick Wilson), he now struggles to balance a life in the ocean with one on land, but that all changes when Black Manta (Yahya Abdul Mateen II) poses a threat so grave that he has no choice but to step up. It certainly doesn’t help that he’s led human scientists (led by Randall Park) to their hidden world, determined to strip it of energy. You see, the survival of Atlantis requires the destruction of the Black Trident he holds, an object that yields a force so evil that it’s only furthering the catastrophic effects of climate change on the underwater kingdom. Arthur can’t stop this alone, so he sets out to free his brother — who, thanks to convenient screenwriting, he makes nice with almost immediately after they’re reintroduced.
My argument as to why superhero fatigue has taken hold isn’t entirely due to the oversaturation of the genre, but because caped crusader movies seldom seem to care about the fates of those on the planet they’re fighting to save. On paper, “Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom” appears to address this, connecting its far-flung aquatic empire with very real concerns about climate change on the surface. Their threat is the same one we face, and making that a critical plot point should give this DC sequel an urgency shared by no other superhero movie this year. Instead, the fate of humanity remains a mere concept, with the Council of Atlantis’ moral concerns about working with mankind to counter this threat not given any room to breathe.
It’s not like the film takes place entirely underwater, but the “surface world” enclaves that Arthur and Orm travel to are far removed from civilization — the only word about what’s going on over there comes in the form of heavy-handed news broadcasts about endless freak weather incidents. The world our heroes are attempting to save never truly comes into focus, and all the human drama revolves around the control of the underwater kingdom, discussed largely through passionless exposition; it’s easy to check out when there’s nothing tangible to hold onto.