Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom: 1 1/2 stars out of 4

My expectations were pretty low going into the second (and final) Aquaman film, but I hoped that at least maybe Jason Momoa could inject some energy into “Lost Kingdom” the way he did with “Fast X” earlier this year. Sadly, there was no underwater equivalent to his flowing purple Fast and Furious pants, and the actor’s final on-screen moment put a strange and unexpected exclamation point on the first iteration of the DCEU.

On its own, James Wan’s “Aquaman and theLost Kingdom” is a simple and routine superhero yarn that sees the newly-crowned King of Atlantis (Momoa) team up with his estranged half-brother Orm (Patrick Wilson) to fight an upgraded villain named Black Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II). We met Manta in the original 2018 film, while Aquaman was focused on keeping Orm from waging war on Earth’s surface, but after tapping into a dark power source called the Black Trident, Manta is ready to assume the title of Main Bad Guy.

We also learn that in the interim, Aquaman has married the first movie’s leading lady Mera (disgraced actress Amber Heard), and even had a child. As you might imagine, this plays into Manta’s plan to defeat the (aqua) man who killed his father.

At best, “Lost Kingdom” is forgettable superhero filler, and the folks at DC have done little to suggest otherwise. “Lost Kingdom” is officially the last of the DCEU films to feature the iterations of Justice League characters played by Momoa, Henry Cavill, and Gal Gadot. “Guardians of the Galaxy” director James Gunn hit the reset button after taking over DC a while back, which left 2023 DC releases like “The Flash” and the “Shazam” sequel feeling like obsolete bonus material. And now “Lost Kingdom” has arrived to finish that thankless job.

You could argue that “Lost Kingdom” is fighting an unfair battle, and a victim of circumstance. But it’s hard to believe that this movie would have done much better a few years ago. The story is routine and unoriginal at best, and hackneyed at worst (the early recap that introduces Aquaman’s son feels functions only to add some stakes to the later confrontation). In spite of Momoa’s charisma, the humor in “Lost Kingdom” feels painfully unfunny, and yet the underwater action is unintentionally comic. The sight of a magic octopus riding a giant seahorse should provide some knowing camp, but here it is played in an odd matter-of-fact tone.

The various creative choices are baffling enough, but the worst part is a final sign-off that feels like DC publicly acknowledging that they wish their movies were as good as the Marvel flicks. Or at least as good as the Marvel flicks used to be.

Overall, “Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom” is a sad and fitting end to the checkered run of modern DC movies, as well as a sad and fitting end to the mainstream franchise offerings of 2023. Whether you want to blame superhero fatigue, ballooning production budgets, political agendas, or union strikes, Hollywood wet the bed in 2023, and it left Aquaman to change the sheets.

“Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom” is rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi action violence and some scattered profanity.

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