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‘Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom’ sinks under the weight of a waterlogged sequel

Jason Momoa returns in
From DC
Jason Momoa returns in "Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom."

Review by Brian Lowry, CNN

(CNN) — That rushing sound is “Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom” taking on water, as the five-years-later sequel to DC’s biggest box-office hit reunites the key players before dousing them in questionable choices. Lacking the sense of discovery and world-building that powered the original, director James Wan settles for a sort-of misguided buddy comedy. Whatever the intent, this doesn’t feel like the answer to lift superhero movies out of their slump.

Indeed, as disappointing DC sequels go, “Aquaman” gives “Wonder Woman 84” a run for its money, although while the villains dragged that 2020 film to its own depths, the absence of a fresh-water foe creates different problems, lacking novel elements to distinguish this movie from its superior predecessor.

Having two villains in the first movie left one, the revenge-minded Black Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), to pick up the heavy lifting, having discovered a dark trident that brings with it incredible powers and creates an environmental threat to the world.

As for Arthur Curry/Aquaman (Jason Momoa), he’s essentially dealing with the hangover of having become king of Atlantis, wrestling with family demands and bureaucratic red tape that ill befits his origins as a short-tempered brawler.

The danger fueled by Black Manta, meanwhile, compels him to take a bold step: Turning to his imprisoned half-brother Orm (Patrick Wilson) to help find and defeat him. If that recalls another sibling rivalry, hey, it’s not like Marvel invented messed-up mythological families.

The interplay between Momoa’s smart-alecky hero and his serious, hostile one-time enemy in theory establishes a mechanism to lighten up the movie, but their “48 HRs.”-style relationship doesn’t muster enough sparks to anchor this visually relentless exercise.

Director James Wan again fills the screen with spectacle, some of it unevenly rendered, though even eye-popping digital effects couldn’t compensate for the frequent flatness of the dialogue and situations. (Although David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick, a veteran of “Aquaman” and one of Wan’s “The Conjuring” sequels, gets sole screenplay credit, he shares credit for the story with Momoa, Wan and Thomas Pa’a Sibbett, which might be a case here of too many cooks spoiling the fish stew.)

The film’s fraternal focus also doesn’t leave much to do for Nicole Kidman as Aquaman’s Atlantean mom and Amber Heard as his wife Mera, although speculation that the latter would have a significantly reduced role based on advance teasers appears to have been exaggerated.

The bottom line is while the first “Aquaman” delivered lots of fun, much of that resting on Momoa’s brawny shoulders, this one doesn’t nearly as consistently. Abdul-Mateen gets saddled with a one-note villain, and the idea of the grudging bond between Arthur and Orm wades through too many clunky moments to reach the few good ones.

As noted, this has already been a rough year for both Marvel and DC, so commercial expectations for “Aquaman” should have been tempered accordingly. But even allowing for that tidal pull the film and its stewards have done themselves few favors by coming back this late in the game with something so uninspired.

Yes, we all know Aquaman can talk to fish, a talent he jokes about at the outset. But to borrow a phrase associated with “The Godfather,” a conspicuously waterlogged sequel can make the case to let the franchise sleep with the fishes for a while, too.

“Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom” premieres December 22 in US theaters. It’s rated PG-13. The movie is being released by Warner Bros., like CNN and DC, a unit of Warner Bros. Discovery.

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