Sunday, January 21, 2024

When the oceans drank Atlantis


Directed by James Wan
Written by David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick, Thomas Pa'a Sibbett, Jason Momoa, and James Wan

Spoilers: moderate

Frankly, I think it says something about how much curdled resentment there is out there that the usual response is actually gleeful triumphalism; but, speaking only for myself, I think it's kind of sad when a cinematic movement that's been the most popular thing for many yearsin this case a decade and a half, which is an accomplishmentfinally exceeds its audience's appetite, and the trend dissipates so much faster than the industrial assembly line can regear for whatever comes next, so there's still movie after movie (after movie) coming out, each one looking a little more pitiful till finally the trickle stops.  This is probably not an entirely accurate summation of superhero cinema in 2024: unlike previous movements, as far as this genre fad is concerned, our major media corporations are in so deep and have so few other options available that, to all appearances, they actually are going to die trying to get their superhero audiences back.  But when it comes to what we once called "the DC Extended Universe," that is truly over, Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom representing the 15th and final installment in that continuity, and that this could be The End for this "story" is, I suppose, really just the final expression of the nobody-has-any-idea-what-the-fuck-they're-doing charm that, to me, has always been the DCEU's best quality.  To its own credit, however, The Lost Kingdom is content to be the first and last sequel to 2018's Aquaman, which I don't necessarily want to commit, hard, to calling my favorite superhero film of all time, though I'm not shy about letting you think it could be.

The sad part isn't just that it's over, or even that audiences got bored; that is sad, kind of, but all things run their course.  The part that's interestingly sad is watching the fickleness of opinion, and how disappointingly lacking in integrity people are when it comes to jumping on, and moreso when it comes to jumping off, bandwagons, and the general inability to treat individual works as individual works rather than opportunities to pontificate and prognosticate.  Which I realize I am also doing, and have always done.  We can leave aside the many people who just didn't go see the moviehey, it's a free country, and maybe it's not so surprising that a mass audience that's been trained to only care about movies that "matter" failed to show up for a movie that its maker has explicitly told them doesn't matter anymore.  (I'm going to paraphrase something here that critic Tim Brayton recently said, because it's too perfect not to: we used to have a lot of movies where it didn't "matter" what happened after they were over, and we called these movies "movies.")  But there is simply no way that a whole lot of the people who did go see it would have had half the mean things to say about it if the exact same motion picture came out even three years ago.  And that's the sad part, the stragglers punished for the sins of their predecessors.  I've seen it happen to other trends, and of course superheroes weren't going to be different. (Which reminds me that I need to mention, one last time, that this is Disney's fault, for despite all the ways in which the DCEU has indeed managed to suck, it has not sucked for even one-tenth of the number of hours that the MCU has sucked.)

So, Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom?  It's pretty damn good, and it at least saves the DCEU from halting on the inexplicably low note of Blue Beetle, or even on The Flash, which I personally quite liked, though I suppose I can reluctantly comprehend how it's more objectively unlikeable than this well-built and extremely-straightforward superhero film.  It gives the DCEU a chance to end doing what it's done best, which is sincere stories about larger-than-life figuresgodlike, if you preferfeeling enormous, godlike feelings, and offering hope and inspiration, which even at the DCEU's grimmest and most Snyderesque was the commonest denominator between the manifold styles and tones the franchise took on, except that James Wan's Aquaman turned out to be the best at it.  My understanding is that Wan, returning for this second go-'round, could not have known that it would be an ending till very late in the game.  (It would, however, explain why there is not one single reference to the wider DCEU in this whole movie.  It's very streamlinedmaybe too streamlined in some respects, but we'll circle back.)

Still: unless it really was pure fate, I think he managed to do at least one thing here that attemptsI think with outright world-class generosityto bring this long chapter of film history to a close.  I don't think I'm spoiling the movie to say, in vague terms, that its post-climactic denouement involves a big speech.  It's a speech delivered by Wan's star, Jason Momoa, which, purely on its own terms, offers a very fitting ending for the character of Arthur CurryAquamanas well as to his mysterious, underwater corner of the DCEU.  It's very heartfelt, it's about peace and ecological stewardship, it's corny, and it's great.  At the last moment, thoughMomoa's very last seconds onscreen as this characterit shifts to something equally sincere, but a little more x-treme and a little more in-your-face, and while it is, naturally, delivered in the bro-surfer idiom that Momoa has made such a vital part of this character in the movies, it's hard not to think that Wan's not giving his bro-surfer the opportunity to eulogize not merely the DCEU, but the whole genre, in full awareness of its impending death.  Accordingly does Aquaman end his era with an homage to its beginning, which started not with a DC, but with a Marvel, all the way back in 2008.  It was called Iron Man, and it ended with a defiant declaration of identity and Tony Stark dropping a mic on a startled world who cried out for more and more, and who got it, till they glutted themselves sick on it.  The Lost Kindgom ends on basically the exact same scene, but of course it's not hello this time, it's goodbye.

That's the last part of the integral narrative of this motion picture.  But after all, superhero movies really pioneered narratives that had no integrity, principally through all the dozens of the mid-credits and post-credits sequences that have been so annoying to those of us with small bladders for lo these fifteen years.  I'm earnestly disappointed that The Lost Kingdom doesn't have any post-credits sequence, advertising a movie that won't ever exist; I think that would have been an utterly delightful little spike of sourness to a movie that's otherwise been so sweet and good-natured about its ignominious place in history.  But it does have a mid-credits sequence!  I wouldn't say it's meaninglessit pays off terrifically on this oft-comedic film's best joke (the shrimp of the land gag) whilst sending another major character off in a nice, off-kilter waybut I love that it doesn't appear to know that this is the end.  Even though I'm surprised it wasn't straight-up spoiled for me because, to a certain mind, it has got to be just beyond perfect that the very final image of The Superhero Age of Cinema is, well, that.*

Anyway, there is an actual movie to deal with here and not just elegies for the superman and final scenes to grub meaning out of.  So: in case we've forgotten, our hero will cheerfully narrate for us where he ended up at the end of Aquaman five years ago (though I don't believe that many years have passed in continuity), thankfully getting the single worst thing in the movie out of the way first. The first Aquaman managed to go two and a half hours without regurgitating certain people's hurt feelings that "Aquaman swims and talks to fish" was (at some point, in, like, the 1980s) a joke with currency in real-world comic book fan circles; this screenplay references that joke right upfront.  It's only briefly worrisome, thank God: the movie leaps in quality the instant this lame meta-crap is dispensed with, and half-human, half-Atlantean Arthur reminds us that, some amount of time ago, he deposed his evil brother Orm (Patrick Wilson) from the throne of Atlantis, took his birthright as Atlantis's king, rescued his mom Atlanna (Nicole Kidman) from exile, and, in the space between movies, knocked up his Atlantean hydromancer girlfriend Mera (Amber Heard), who gave birth to their child and has consented, I guess, to raise Arthur Jr. on land with the help of Arthur's dad Thomas (Temuera Morrison), while they commute to their jobs in the ocean.  Atlantean politics are hard and boring and polarizedthe isolationist/eliminationist impulses towards the surface world were not dispelled with Ormand Arthur questions if it's even worth being their king.

More critically, however, a catastrophe looms on the horizon, for Black Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), the demi-villain of Aquaman who swore eternal revenge on Arthur for leaving his pirate father to die, has pursued his obsession with gusto, roping in dopey, naive scientist Dr. Shin (Randall Park) in his quest to accumulate enough Atlantean technology to kill Atlantis's king.  On one of these expeditions Manta gets more than he asked foraccess to the so-called "Lost Kingdom," its very name stricken from the Atlantean chronicles.  From its ruins he acquires a weapon of great power and antiquity, the Black Trident, as well as a very insistent voice in his head, belonging to the ghost of a long-dead and utterly-malign king.  In consultation with this sinister force, and to free it from the Antarctic ice in which it has been imprisoned, he takes it upon himself to accelerate the greenhouse destruction of Earth's whole climate.  When Aquaman intervenes, Manta draws blood, and Arthur is left with only one option: the one Atlantean who knows Black Manta, and so might know how to track him down, his own fascist brother, Orm, the onceand future?Ocean Master.

So that is some dorky shit, and it's pretty fantastic, like Aquaman before it drawing on numerous influences to be its own silly-wonderful thing, in this case leaning even more than "it's about Atlantis" already requires upon early 20th century fantasy in its supposition of grand superhuman kingdoms lost to abysses of time, with the caveat being that that which is not dead can eternal lie, while mashing that into aquatic superheroics and mid-century sci-fi and a current of pop 90s eco-messaging that's salient throughoutthe villain is doing climate change for "a reason," and it feels like it's practically for the lulz, principally just to piss off Aquaman, who understandably does not like climate changeeventually culminating in the single most splendid Captain Planet image that I expect has ever graced a feature film, let alone any episode of Captain Planet, of a giant volcano belching out towering plumes of "greenhouse" gas that is, literally, Nickolodeon slime green.  So a colorful good time at the movies, to say the least.

It certainly has more: the careers of James Wan and Patrick Wilson have been intertwined for a very long time now, and it was for this as much as anything, I'd imagine, that recommended Wilson for the big bad part in Aquaman, and, speaking as a giant Patrick Wilson fan**, he was excellent there with a whole lot less to do than he has here in a movie that, once it really kicks off in its second act with Arthur's secret-mission rescue of Orm from a prison designed to permanently dehydrate him, has been structured pretty much exclusively as a mismatched-pair buddy comedy.  This is just purely-pleasurable, old-fashioned action-adventure movie-making, and it works exceedingly well, Momoa and Wilson demonstrating stronger chemistry than I'd have guessed even from Aquaman, where their mutual enmity was still founded on a pretty strong foundation of good scene-partner chemistry.  Wilson in particular rides a rewarding line here of arch, peremptory villainyof the kind that you'd expect from a guy who demanded you "call [him] 'OCEAN MASTER'"that continually wobbles against Momoa's sloppy, whatever-dude charms, and while Orm's worldview is destined to crumble before his good-hearted half-brother's own philosophy, Wilson charts this crumbling expertly and with solid straight-man humor.  Meanwhile, there are moments that Wan doesn't stress, but Wilson does (and with Kidman particularly), that anchor this in a legitimate emotional reality for our poor misguided Sea Nazi.

The big downside is obvious, and distressing depending on your partisanship, and I was very suspicious of The Lost Kingdom and Warners as regards their intentions with Amber Heard.  (It played a minor part in how late I saw it, but I eventually realized it couldn't possibly help Heard not to see the movie she's in.)  Long story very short, she has virtually nothing to do in this, but it's in a way that I don't know how she could haveMera has a couple of splashy heroic moments (and one wild swing of a comedic moment early on, combining hydromancy and urine for a joke that, I'll give it this, I've never seen before), which all at least strongly indicate Wan and Momoa didn't purposefully ditch herand it's so entirely built-from-first-principles to be Arthur and Orm's movie that the first Aquaman's entire damned secondary cast has gotten themselves demoted to featured extras here.  And, you know, I'll take it: it amounts to one shockingly focused superhero movie, and if the genre had gotten more Lost Kingdoms over the last few years, maybe it wouldn't be in the place it's in today.  Other than a third act complication that, if we stare a hole into it, is almost certainly cheating with its whole "we said he was doing it this one way, but he could have just done it this other way, which is the way he's doing it now" villain plotting, it's maybe the most mechanically-sound superhero flick screenplay in a decade.

The smaller downside is that whatever might've been interesting about Abdul-Mateen's villainy, one-dimensional but maybe compelling, is harder to appreciate through the green fog of ancient mind control; this is such a small downside that I almost regret bringing it up, because Black Manta is a villain best-enjoyed on the level of pure imagery anywayridiculous bug-eyes the color of rubies sitting atop an ebon humanoid form that melds into the murk and shadows, notably when Wan reminds you he's a horror director foremost, in a scene in a darkened house that's all the more effective because you know what's coming.

And while the script is, I'll concede with slight reluctance, principally "for" the combative relationship between Arthur and Orm, it's only the slightest bit less "for" giving Wan and returning production designer Bill Brzeski one more opportunity to take us on another tour of their wacky sci-fantasy imaginations, with the same Aquaman ethosnothing can be too ridiculousvery obviously driving that effort.  Thus another ocean-full of wonders, from Martin Short as a slimy Jabba-fish amidst the accumulated shipwrecks of a millennium, to glowing seahorses that (well, I laughed) make land-horse sounds, to an octopus sidekick whose intelligence Orm openly disrespects.  And the ocean isn't even the half of it: Arthur and Orm's prison break from a magical desert kingdom run by withered skeletal monsters and burrowing worm-horses, for instance, or the arrival upon Manta's monster island, which I guess shows that Wan can pretend to feel embarrassment, because he cites as his inspiration Ray Harryhausen, but he's fucking lying, he means Bert I. Gordon, and Wan is a treasure.  His action staging is crisp and clear and cool, and while this movie is very obviously mostly big wads of CGI, Wan maintains the DCEU tradition of using CGI well and in service of real, gratifying spectacle; and there's a special commendation here for how incredibly legible the undersea action is, despite every single thing about itthe distortion, the sheets of bubbles, the scope of the battles, the three-dimensionality of the environments, the overwhelming threat of submarine darknessposing a mortal challenge to keeping it readable and exciting.  Now, it's not devoid of some semi-serious flaws: the final battle does start to get a little stale by the time it ends (even when it finds a rather better dramatic toehold than "Manta really hates the shit out of Aquaman, and the green man makes him hate him even more"), whereas the climactic glowing emerald ghouls are, unfortunately, the least-interesting creatures we get to see in the whole movie.  This is a very mild bummer in the context of a sequel to Aquaman, which escalated absolutely perfectly straight through.  But there's a moment when Aquaman calls upon an army of whales as his only hope against one of Manta's several ultimate weapons, and they confront the villain's submarine, which is also shaped like the villain's head, and if I'm being honest with you, I don't think I've been more delighted by a scene in a movie this whole past year.  In the midst of cartoonish Silver Age nonsense, it finds wonderment and soul.  Superheroes are dead, but even if this movie knows it, it never gives the game away.

Score: 9/10

*And that I appear to have predicted it in my Flash review, by way of a metaphor I was only trying to be vividly gross with, is, I hope you'll allow me, something of a modest mindfuck.
**So giant I haven't seen Insidious: The Red Door yet, but while a Wilson fan I may be, it's not fair that he'd ask me to play catch-up with a horror franchise that even at its best was only good.  But I'm gonna do it anyway.

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