Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom review: brainless finale to DC’s universe is a damning indictment on its legacy

There was once a time when a film as nakedly terrible as Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom would become its own spectacle. It’d be celebrated, ironically, as another Highlander II: The Quickening or Battlefield Earth – a banquet of nonsense for future inebriated university students to feast on. But the superhero market has thoroughly annihilated that joy. Now, it’s somehow possible to watch Oscar-winner Nicole Kidman straddle a CGI robot shark and feel… nothing at all.

Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom is the latest entry in the rogues’ gallery of brainless franchise films. It is yet another reminder that cinema is locked in a corporate chokehold, robbing artists of the ability even to flail about in style anymore. Director James Wan had, at one point, confidently set his sights on making a spin-off horror film The Trench (focusing on a mysterious, eldritch rival to Aquaman’s home world, Atlantis) but instead has had to clumsily condense those ideas into background fodder for the franchise’s returning villain, Black Manta.

Played by Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, who does a valiant job of committing to his character’s lone emotion of sociopathic rage, Black Manta is driven by his desire to kill Aquaman (Jason Momoa). In his pursuit of vengeance, he stumbles across a cursed triton, crafted by a ghostly monarch who looks like a store-bought Halloween animatronic and whose plan for global domination first involves burning an insane amount of fossil fuels. Yes, this film is somehow about climate change!

This, of course, poses a particular threat to Aquaman, who’s now a full-time family man. He has his queen – Amber Heard’s Mera – by his side and a new baby at home, which allows him to yell both, “Get away from my wife!” and “Get away from my son!” over the course of two hours. While Heard is in far more of The Lost Kingdom than its highly suspect promotional campaign had hinted at (which, coupled with reports of her alleged on-set treatment, paints a truly grim picture of how abuse survivors are still treated), her character also suffers from an irritating bit of faux-feminism. Mera is shoved aside until it’s narratively convenient to have a “girl power” moment, in which the whole film comes to a halt as if expecting the audience to leap to its feet and clap.

Mostly, though, Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom is about brotherhood, as our hero seeks out his imprisoned kinsman and former nemesis, Orm (Patrick Wilson), as a potential ally. And while Wan attempts to transform Orm into a Loki-esque antihero of fickle allegiance, he never offers him the space for any real introspection.

Aquaman and Orm are, firstly, too busy sprinting through derivative set pieces: they meet an aquatic Jabba the Hutt, voiced by Martin Short and surrounded by a coterie of sexy fish ladies, before landing in a Mysterious Island-style realm of ginormous carnivorous insects. Meanwhile, the historically cocky, but largely affable Aquaman has fully shifted into a mean-spirited frat boy. He’s so incapable of taking anything seriously that, when the film does call on him to shed a tear, it simply gives up and fades to black after 10 seconds.

The Lost Kingdom marks the official conclusion to the so-called DCEU, with new studio heads James Gunn and Peter Safran ready to tear it all down and start again with 2025’s Superman: Legacy. It’d be nice to say the franchise will be remembered for its occasional triumphs (it’s rare to find a comic book film as good as 2020’s Birds of Prey) but The Lost Kingdom speaks too fluently to its failures to not feel like a damning indictment on its legacy. And so, we say goodbye to the cinematic universe that brought us 2016’s Suicide Squad and 2022’s Black Adam with a scene in which Aquaman, born with the ability to command fish, locks eyes with an octopus and asks: “Is ink piss?”

Dir: James Wan. Starring: Jason Momoa, Patrick Wilson, Amber Heard, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Randall Park, Temuera Morrison, Nicole Kidman. 12A, 124 minutes.

‘Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom’ is in cinemas now