Talk about lost: ‘Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom’ feels abandoned by DC

Talk about lost: ‘Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom’ feels abandoned by DC

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“Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom” feels like the friend at a middle school sleepover whose mom forgot to pick them up the next morning. You know, they know, everybody knows: The friend has overstayed their welcome, but you’re still trying to make things fun.

The DC cinematic universe is getting a 2025 reboot, courtesy of James Gunn, with the future of Jason Momoa’s Aquaman character uncertain (though not looking good). Not only does “Aquaman” have to deal with the fallout from Johnny Depp’s and Amber Heard’s dueling lawsuits and claims that Momoa and Heard (who plays Aquaman’s wife, Mera, and the mother of their child) didn’t get along during filming, but it has to engage audiences with a sequel that feels abandoned by the studio that made it.

Let’s get this out of the way upfront: Despite speculation to the contrary, Heard does appear on-screen as Mera, but in the same way that Nicole Kidman appears as Atlanna, the Queen of Atlantis and mother of the title character. That is to say, barely. Heard and Momoa interact about as much as my divorced parents, and with the same degree of warmth.

The film doesn’t address this diminution of her role after the first film at all, instead pivoting full force into Momoa’s charisma. The actor makes an exuberant return as Arthur Curry/Aquaman, who is having trouble living up to the crown he usurped from his half brother, Orm (Patrick Wilson). With Heard sidelined, the main relationship here is the one between formerly estranged siblings. Aquaman breaks his brother out of prison to gain his help in stopping global warming.

In this telling, the environmental catastrophe is being caused by Black Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), returning from the 2018 film to seek revenge on Aquaman for the death of his father. To carry out the revenge, Manta needs to repair his suit (which looks like a hand-me-down from the Ant-Man movies). While searching for the technology needed to repair his gear, Manta discovers a powerful black trident and is possessed by an ancient, evil force that wants to warm the planet and free itself.

This entity has a fun backstory, enchanting with beautifully designed special effects and fun powers. Unfortunately, this new entity and the world it opens up are underused. If there’s one word to describe “Aquaman,” it would be “under”: It’s also underwritten and underdeveloped.

One scene in particular stands out as half-baked: An Atlantis-obsessed scientist (Randall Park) working for Manta is shown begging for his life before Aquaman and Orm. The moment — meant to be heartfelt, with touches of humor — falls flat because it feels like Park delivered his monologue on an empty soundstage. Sure, it’s the magic of Hollywood to not have actors in a room together. But is it still magic if we can tell?

Therein lies the problem: “Aquaman” feels like the draft of a superhero movie, not the final product.

The CGI varies wildly. Sometimes it’s like watching two different movies: one with a budget that would allow for vibrant creatures, diving headfirst into a brilliant new world, and another that looks like a sequel to 2007’s “Beowulf.”

It’s not always a drag; Momoa and Wilson’s brotherly banter and chemistry feel natural. Does “No one hits my brother … but me” sound like something you might see printed on a Rae Dunn coffee mug at T.J. Maxx? Yes. But a cheap laugh is still a laugh. In a movie this sad, I’ll take it.

PG-13. At area theaters. Contains sci-fi violence and some strong language. 124 minutes.

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