Man, it’s too bad. AQUAMAN was the wackadoo James Wan super hero movie that somehow won over skeptical audiences and literally made a billion dollars. It was set up in a couple other DC Comics movies, so it’s technically connected to them, but it takes place off in its own weirdo fantasy world where people ride giant seahorses and can talk underwater. If any modern super hero movie was gonna get a sequel with BATMAN RETURNS or BLADE II type boldness, it should’ve been this one. Didn’t quite turn out that way, I’m afraid.
It took five years, partly because Wan wanted to take his time. He produced more horror movies and directed MALIGNANT, one of his most inspired. But Covid added another year to the schedule and shifting plans for the future of the Detective Comics Extendable Unit invited shenanigans from the stockbroker dipshits running the studio. By the time it was released they had shot cameos with two different Batmen to set up two different future movies and then didn’t use either because they decided to end the whole universe and start over from scratch. So now that there’s a sequel to the highest-grossing DCEU movie and the highest-grossing movie based on a DC character and the third-highest-grossing WB movie behind BARBIE and HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS PART 2 they were basically dumping it, treating it as leftover stock. All inventory must go.
Even that could’ve been positive. All the more reason to go for broke, wave the underwater freak flag, and make a movie that counts on its own, with no pressure to be disposable junk just setting you up for the next one that’s just setting you up for the next one. They should’ve let James Wan do whatever the fuck he wanted.
Maybe they did, maybe they didn’t. AQUAMAN AND THE LOST KINGDOM is packed with the sort of imaginative silliness that made the first film so fun, it’s just not as well constructed. Lots of good ideas, and lots of other ones, kinda stirred in there without time for all of them to gel. The first one introduced us to the character and the world, I think they just needed to push all the craziness further (which arguably they did) in a really well structured story, a well told tale. Instead it feels slapdash and random. It opens with Aquaman (Jason Momoa, WOLVES) narrating, later has marine biologist Dr. Shin (Randall Park, LARRY CROWNE) narrating, ends with no one narrating. The two female leads from part 1, Aquaman’s wife Mera (Amber Heard, NEVER BACK DOWN) and mother Atlanna (Nicole Kidman, THE PAPERBOY) seem like they never shot their big re-introduction scenes. You just see flashes of them here and there for a while and then suddenly it starts acting like they’ve been there all along. Willem Dafoe couldn’t fit it into his schedule to return as Aquaman’s mentor, so they just mention that he died (admittedly I hadn’t watched the first movie in a while so assumed it happened in that). Also there are a surprising number of pee jokes.
It begins with Arthur “Aquaman” Curry updating us on his current lifestyle. He still lives with his dad (Temuera Morrison, BARB WIRE) in a little house by the water, he’s also King of Atlantis (which he finds boring – mostly meetings), he has a baby son named Arthur Jr. now, who I guess they have to raise on land separately from his aquatic mother. (His birth is shown briefly in a montage, looking like a flashback from a previous movie that doesn’t exist.)
Meanwhile, Arthur’s part one side villain, the ruthless sea-mercenary David “Black Manta” Kane (Yahya Abdul-Mateen, AMBULANCE), is out for revenge (Aquaman killed his father) which he believes he can only achieve by rebuilding his powersuit with the giant helmet (famous from Super Friends). So obviously he intimidates non-evil civilian Dr. Shin into leading an expedition in Antarctica and uncovering the ancient ruins of the lost kingdom of Necrus, where he finds The Black Trident and becomes possessed by the evil spirit of King Kordax (Pilou Asbæk, BEN-HUR, THE GREAT WALL, GHOST IN THE SHELL, OVERLORD, SAMARITAN), as if he wasn’t enough of an asshole already.
Five months later, Dr. Shin has helped Black Manta repurpose the Necrus technology to rebuild the suit, and also they’re driving ancient “Octobot” vehicles and wearing black leather uniforms definitely inspired by Mario Bava’s PLANET OF THE VAMPIRES (though Shin is still allowed to wear stuff you could buy at Old Navy). Of concern to Aquaman, the machines are powered by a fuel called orichalcum that is speeding up global warming, causing weather disasters around the world and dangerous plagues in the sea.
Aquaman decides, without adequate explanation, that he can only stop Black Manta by busting part I’s main villain, his brother Orm (Patrick Wilson, THE COMMUTER), out of prison and doing a whole 48 HOURS type buddy movie thing. It doesn’t make much sense but it’s the reason to make the movie. Wilson has been a reliable actor for 20 years now but it takes James Wan to make him the co-lead in one of the most expensive movies ever made.
And Orm gets an entrance worthy of a former Ocean Master. He serves his sentence for murdering the Fisherman King in a desert prison run by blood-drinking skeletonized fish people (awesome), who allow him only enough water to survive. He’s got a Robinson Crusoe beard and his limbs look like fragile twigs, but during the escape and ensuing chase he drops into the sea and rises suddenly buff and ready to kick ass, like he’s one of those compressed sponges that inflates when it gets wet.
On their adventure, Arthur is raucous and handsy and overly pop-culture-referency, while Orm is uptight and annoyed, before they slowly warm up to each other and bond. It’s not the perfect execution of the formula (I wish Momoa’s riffing was more balanced with a serious side) but it’s a reliable one, especially when you have two actors this lovable and oddly matched. They go to a weird volcano island, they run from giant bugs, Arthur tricks Orm into thinking that humans eat roaches, the baby gets kidnapped, Dr. Shin gets freaked out by this baby business and tries to switch sides, there are monsters, battles, etc.
The script is credited to David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick (ORPHAN, WRATH OF THE TITANS), with “story by” credits for Wan & Johnson-McGoldrick and Momoa & Thomas Pa’a Sibbett (BRAVEN). I believe the theory that some of the problems come from Wan and Momoa each having their own very separate idea of what the sequel should be, and having to figure out how to merge them. I think it also kinda lost sight of what is appealing about Momoa’s persona, shifting away from “I look scary, but I’m a big silly boy!” to “I’m a big silly boy!” That may be the kind of thing that gets away from you in the editing or the improvising.
In its low points, AND THE LOST KINGDOM starts feeling like a more visually appealing Stephen Sommers film – things that in theory are very fun and cool become tiresome as they’re thrown at us without much rhythm or sense. It would melt into uninvolving NOISE! NOISE! NOISE! NOISE! for a bit but then I’d be looking at MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE star Dolph Lundgren and Academy Award Winner Nicole Kidman standing underwater examining a hologram and talking about the squid that’s gonna help Aquaman, whose name is an acronym and who she mentions plays several instruments (because he’s the one who played drums in the first movie). And then I would fall in love with this world again.
Maybe a nicer way of describing its jumbled structure is to compare it to SHIN KAMEN RIDER – that feeling of stringing together a bunch of unrelated episodes of a show into the length of one movie. Hectic and jumbled, way too many people explaining way too many things, but sometimes in a good way.
I mean, they go to an underwater equivalent of Jabba’s palace called the Sunken Citadel, where the Jabba character is voiced by Martin Short. There are many glorious shots of Aquaman and other characters swooping into battles on giant seahorses, at least once with octopus sidekick Topo riding shotgun. The bad guys are using computers from an ancient civilization, so the text is blocky kinda like an Atari 2600. There’s a manly handshake that makes a loud metal clang sound for no reason. And a camera flash that makes the sound from THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE. A few times the movie made me think of Power Rangers – Black Manta making evil proclamations from behind his giant helmet, twirling his trident and doing a flying spin kick as the music speeds up. And the whole cast is great at saying beautifully ridiculous dialogue that we know they know is ridiculous but they still say it like they don’t. I forgot the specific lines I tried to commit to memory, but just know that there are many that are even better than Kidman’s “The Black Trident’s evil is spreading!” from the trailer.
So although it’s true that AQUAMAN AND THE LOST KINGDOM is a disappointment, it’s also a movie I watched with a big old smile on my face, and it benefits from a solid resolution to the story and character arcs, followed by a shamelessly goofy finale that’s like Super Friends meets ON DEADLY GROUND. It’s certainly not One Of The Great Sequels, and that’s a shame. But maybe some day, in the right mood, it will seem like a miracle. Or at least a good enough laugh.
* * *
So let’s pour one out for the DCEU, the only cinematic universe named by accident (when fans repeated “DC Extended Universe™” from an Entertainment Weekly article, even though what the fuck would the “Extended” part even mean, and Warner Brothers gave up correcting them after a while). It is preceded in death by The Dark Universe and The King Arthurverse and survived by upcoming seasons of Waller and Peacemaker, which somehow count as part of the new thing.
When they decided to make interconnected DC Comics movies, they were stepping into the footprints of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (and even this final chapter has two big moments that are weirdly close to ones from BLACK PANTHER). But in retrospect it still turned into a unique collection of movies. We tend to forget this now, but the first one, MAN OF STEEL, was produced by Christopher Nolan (OPPENHEIMER), and the big nerd debate at the time was whether or not it took place in the same world as the DARK KNIGHT movies. Nolan and director Zack Snyder had to keep explaining it was its own universe where Superman was the only super hero. But Warner Brothers wanted to back their way into an AVENGERS by introducing Batman, Wonder Woman, Aquaman and Cyborg in the sequel, leading to a few solo films and a team-up in JUSTICE LEAGUE. Along the way – as they reacted to which movies fell flat and which ones hit big – the thing branched off into different approaches and tones. It’s very inconsistent, but on most days I’d take inconsistent and weird over dependable and middle of the road.
I saw all of them and reviewed all but one one of them (whoops) so I’ll say a bit about each here and link to my full reviews.
When MAN OF STEEL came out in 2013 I said “I liked not loved” it. After I saw it a second time I said “all my minor quibbles faded away.” Whatever problems I had with it seem insignificant now, and it’s definitely one of my favorites of the DCEU. I think Henry Cavill is great as Superman, I love Snyder’s very serious (but not as humorless as people say) approach, Hans Zimmer’s score is an all-timer that increases its power exponentially, it looks way more beautiful and real than most comic book movies that have been made since (including with these characters), and the action scenes are spectacular. They actually play better now than they did then, since I was disappointed Snyder chose a human’s perspective of events instead of the speed-ramping and shit he was so good at. In retrospect he was giving us something much more precious. Same goes for the self-serious tone – that sort of thing has gone in and out of style but now the winky-winky ones have had the conch for so long that this sort of thing feels novel.
It came out a little before the online culture wars, but it was divisive in an old school nerd way. Many felt its reimagining of Superman betrayed the character’s essence. I felt they were willfully misinterpreting the events of the movie (claiming he killed people off screen and unmentioned) and it annoyed me so much I wrote a third piece on the movie. Jesus. Anyway, I think it’s a movie that holds up, and I imagine some people would appreciate it a little more now that all that discourse has faded.
BATMAN V SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE (2016) opens with Bruce Wayne’s perspective of the events of MAN OF STEEL, and he agrees with the internet that Superman was reckless. I still think this was Snyder going along with the response, but I could be wrong. This movie was frustrating to me because Batman is My Guy when it comes to super heroes, and I was so excited for how Snyder would handle him, but I think it’s a mixed bag, and we never even saw his take on Gotham City (which is as important as the character in every other Batman movie). At the same time Superman never got his proper sequel. But there are plenty of things I like in the movie, as explained in the review.
SUICIDE SQUAD (2016) coming out only a handful of months later I think permanently hobbled this series. They had called all these shots in advance and then kept missing them. The premise of a super villain DIRTY DOZEN is so good, I appreciate the obnoxious style and attitude and many of the characters, it’s just a mess as far as storytelling. We may never know if David Ayer’s original cut is as much better as I suspect, but it must have been more coherent. If you’ve forgotten, the trailer was hugely popular, WB panicked that the actual movie had a different tone, and literally hired the trailer editing house to oversee a new cut! At the very least this explains the torturous overuse of only the beginnings of needle drops that cut out before anything happens.
I still respect the movie more than many, but I think almost everyone can agree that the casting of Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn was a masterstroke. Also since the movie made money and most people exempted her from their complaints about it, it was a bump to her career that probly helped facilitate the great success she’s had since.
WONDER WOMAN (2017) was another perfect casting (courtesy of Snyder) and it may be hard to convey to people in the future what a phenomenon this movie was at the time. Or maybe it’s easy to understand while watching it – I don’t know, it’s been a while. I didn’t turn on Gadot after the sequel like so many people did, but I do feel queasy about her current side gig as Hollywood’s ambassador for Israeli war propaganda, so it’s not a good time for a clear-eyed re-assessment.
JUSTICE LEAGUE (2017) was the sign that even Wonder Woman might not be able to regain this series’ footing. At the time I liked it more than most people I talked to. But, you know, MAN OF STEEL was a movie I felt compelled to go back and watch over and over, in the theater and on blu-ray, and I kept thinking and writing about it. Then by the time they’d built up to their epic team-up I was settling for “ha ha, it wasn’t that bad, it was kind of fun.” So that’s a problem.
Maybe the reason AQUAMAN (2018) was such a delight is that it took place in its own world where things are better down where it’s wetter under the sea. It made it clear that the way forward was not team-ups and crossovers, but standalone adventures where each character and their surroundings are their own unique and beautifully ludicrous snowflake. I don’t want to overlook SUICIDE SQUAD’s important role in pushing DC away from Nolan Land into Cartoon World (it has a crocodile man, for example), but I think by grabbing all pretentions of edginess and drowning them in the ocean, AQUAMAN became the official proclamation that DC movies could be shameless candy-colored fun.
SHAZAM! (2019) is the first DC movie I waited to see on video, because I just wasn’t into the idea of a kid who meets a wizard who gives him the power to turn into a flying muscle man. It too does its own thing as a kids movie on the edges of the DC universe. It benefits from likable kid actors, they find funny things to do with this power, and it’s grounded with a pretty effectively sad backstory. Very low in my rankings, but not bad.
BIRDS OF PREY (AND THE FANTABULOUS EMANCIPATION OF ONE HARLEY QUINN) (2020) is, as of my last rewatch, my official favorite DCEU movie. It catapults off of SUICIDE SQUAD’s smart alecky vibe, centering on its best character and letting her loopy but lovable personality bleed into the world and the storytelling. It’s very funny, has great action and stunts (Daniel Bernhardt is even in it!), an appealing cartoon look, several cool supporting characters that only appear in this movie, and a heart-warming story of friendship.
WONDER WOMAN 1984 (2020) probly never was gonna be very popular, because it’s a goofy one, but I think being delayed and then released straight to streaming during covid lockdown killed its chances at a good reception. At the time I appreciated its defiantly out of style corniness, and re-reading my review makes me think it might hold up. For me only.
ZACK SNYDER’S JUSTICE LEAGUE (2021), on the other hand, got to exist because of covid lockdown. It feels like by far the biggest DCEU movie, and maybe the most miraculous. The bizarre circumstances of Snyder having a family tragedy while the studio was sort of wanting to get rid of him, Joss Whedon’s recut of his movie being wildly unpopular, then a weird cult gathering around the legend of the non-existent Snyder Cut, converging with the Warner Brothers leadership suicidally dumping all of their money into a streaming service that could not possibly profit the way the actual movie business does, and giving him $70 million more to finish his movie into a much longer and more self-indulgent version than originally planned, could never be re-created. It doesn’t all work, but it takes time to breathe and be weird and huge and full of awe. I have to confess I completely bought into the idea that Whedon had done the best anybody could’ve done to salvage a movie that wasn’t working. I’m glad I was wrong. This movie really is special.
THE SUICIDE SQUAD (2021) is also a miracle, and very close to my favorite. Once again, it was made possible by an incredibly unlikely series of events. First, SUICIDE SQUAD being widely hated but successful enough for a sequel, whose makers would have license to put a different spin on it. Second, James Gunn being a snarky Troma guy who made it big by helming the beloved GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY series. Third, Gunn offending online nazi goons by criticizing Trump, resulting in a disingenuous campaign pretending to be offended by the type of dumb edgelord jokes a former Troma guy used to post back in the day. Fourth, Disney being stupid enough to take the bait and fire him from GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 3 and not think better of it until literally one day after he was hired by DC to do THE SUICIDE SQUAD.
And I just think he was the perfect guy to do it. I love the GUARDIANS movies, but this one is even more my shit, a joyous and beautiful looking riff on ‘80s action movies, casually satirizing American foreign policy as too amoral for literal comic book super villains to go along with, and showing an absolute love for misfits and fuckups trying to do better. It finds beauty in rats chewing at the veins of a giant eyeball, soul in an alien starfish, heart in a man-eating sharkman who just wants friends. It’s a classic.
The HBO Max spin-off series Peacemaker (2022) is also really good. John Cena’s ultraviolent character is not my favorite in the movie, but Gunn’s longform comedic dissection of his macho bullshit makes him fascinating and bumps Cena’s acting to a new level. Somehow they make Peacemaker sympathetic as we realize what he’s overcompensating for and see him ever so slowly growing as a person. Also he has a pet eagle named Eagly.
For a while BLACK ADAM (2022) had me thinking I was gonna be surprised by it, but that didn’t last, and it’s my least favorite DCEU movie. I felt like people were being a little unfair to Dwayne Johnson, not giving him credit for playing something other than himself for the first time in a while, but I think the movie’s failure will do him good because he seems to have rededicated himself to being an actor more than a brand.
SHAZAM! FURY OF THE GODS (2023) had some funny stuff including killer unicorns, but I think spending less time with the kid actors and more with the adults trying to act like kids in adult bodies was a huge mistake.
THE FLASH (2023) is a complicated one. You could not find a better illustration of the emptiness of nostalgia than the pleasing but hollow return of Michael Keaton as Batman. But I genuinely like the story and the lead performances, it has some great sequences, some actual emotion, it’s certainly not the godless cinematic atrocity many claimed it was.
And what do you know, I made it almost to the end reviewing every single DCEU movie, and then I skipped writing about BLUE BEETLE. I don’t know man, it was likable enough, good use of Cypress Hill, the fictional city it takes place in is pretty original, some pretty good action. It’s fine but not my favorite.
And that’s it. Gunn has officially taken over the DC Comics movies, is removing the gratuitous “Extended” and starting a fresh new DCU with his 2025 film SUPERMAN: LEGACY, starring David Corenswet (the projectionist from PEARL) as Superman and Rachel Brosnahan (DEAD FOR A DOLAR) as Lois. The one thing I’m in denial about is that Margot Robbie is so perfect as Harley Quinn that (if she wants to) she ought to make more movies. She never even got to meet a Poison Ivy! I think it would make perfect sense for her to be so crazy she walks between universes and doesn’t even notice the difference, but I’m not sure they have that in mind. Maybe she’ll be too busy anyway.
The DCEU (2013-2023) is a mixed bag of a movie series, but let’s take a look at the totals. Including both JUSTICE LEAGUEs we got 16 films. I would say I love MAN OF STEEL, BIRDS OF PREY and THE SUICIDE SQUAD, and I would consider throwing AQUAMAN and ZACK SNYDER’S JUSTICE LEAGUE in that basket too. WONDER WOMAN I would say I like quite a bit. The rest I would qualify as either flawed but interesting or at least okay. Only the SHAZAMs, BLACK ADAM and BLUE BEETLE lean bland to me, and they have their moments, so it’s really not a bad record.
I love that they’re so all over the map tonally and stylistically. It’s so stupid and wonderful that this so-called cinematic universe started with a Nolan-produced, desaturated Superman that consciously evokes Terence Malick, and ends with bright orange Aquaman standing at a podium between Dolph Lundgren and an animated lobster man making a speech to the world about unity between sea and surface dwellers. It wasn’t by design, but they ended up encompassing a broad spectrum of super hero stories, a nice tribute to the versatility of the genre and the medium that originated it. Rest in peace Detective Comics Extended Universe, you big ugly bastard. You’re in a better place now, reunited with Martha.