With some notable exceptions, it’s not been a great year for superhero movies. The Marvel Cinematic Universe has shown genuine signs of frailty, and that was before The Marvels became the biggest box office bomb in the MCU’s history. The world of DC hasn’t fared much better: Amid plans of a full-scale reboot under James Gunn, the last remnants of the Zack Snyder era have struck out with audiences. (Can you blame moviegoers when they’ve been told none of those blockbusters will remain canon?) None of this bodes well for the final superhero film to be released in 2023, which also doubles as the Snyderverse’s swan song: Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom.
Not to be outdone, the Aquaman sequel arrives with plenty of its own baggage. Between poor audience test scores, rumors of star Jason Momoa showing up drunk on set, and a significantly reduced role for Amber Heard following her defamation trial with ex-husband Johnny Depp, The Lost Kingdom has all the makings of a shit show. (The box office projections, in turn, are hardly encouraging.) But even if The Lost Kingdom ends up underwhelming, it shouldn’t take anything away from what director James Wan accomplished with the original Aquaman, which is still the only Snyderverse film to gross over a billion dollars.
Wan might be best known for kick-starting lucrative horror franchises (Saw, The Conjuring, Insidious), but Aquaman is, first and foremost, a delirious work of camp: a blockbuster in which a giant octopus is the hype man for underwater gladiator fights, and the villian earnestly vies for the title of “Ocean Master.” Pitbull contributes the worst song you’ve ever heard; it’s the best. Everything about Aquaman is absurd, but knowingly so. Love it or hate it, Wan deserves a ton of credit for delivering a superhero movie unlike anything before it. And with The Lost Kingdom arriving on Friday, what better time to revisit the original Aquaman and all its oceanic idiosyncrasies? From Atlantean politics to the monstrous inhabitants of the Trench, this is the Aquaman power ranking.
25. Jason Momoa and Amber Heard’s Chemistry
What gets lost amid all the drama surrounding Heard’s diminished role in The Lost Kingdom—a situation that led to her ex, Elon Musk, writing a letter to Warner Bros. threatening to “burn the house down” if she wasn’t brought back for the sequel—is that she and Momoa have absolutely zero on-screen chemistry. The setup should be a slam dunk: As Arthur Curry (Momoa) and Princess Mera (Heard) traverse the globe in search of the lost trident of King Atlan (Graham McTavish), it’s only a matter of time before the bickering heroes fall for each other. But that sounds better in theory than in execution: Together, the actors feel more like annoyed siblings than prospective lovers. (I would watch a Nathan Fielder–Emma Stone parody of Arthur and Mera’s scenes in a heartbeat.)
At the same time, it’s important to stress that Heard doesn’t deserve any of the online vitriol she’s received in the wake of the Depp trial—nor should that be the impetus for her apparent lack of screen time in The Lost Kingdom. Throw in the fact that Mera and Arthur start a family, and it’s even more jarring that Heard’s almost entirely omitted from The Lost Kingdom’s marketing. Just ask the folks at Lucasfilm whether it’s worth catering to the most toxic elements of a fan base.
24. De-aged Temuera Morrison
Aquaman opens with Tom Curry (Temuera Morrison), a lighthouse keeper in rural Maine who discovers an injured woman who’s washed ashore. Revealed to be Atlanna (Nicole Kidman), the queen of Atlantis who fled her home, she and Tom end up falling in love and raising a son. That’s all well and good, but since the characters first meet in 1985, Morrison gets the de-aging treatment. It, uh, hasn’t aged well:
It seems like de-aging technology gets better every year (see: a younger Harrison Ford in Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny), but what makes its inclusion in Aquaman so distracting is that Kidman just … gets to be herself. And yes, I know it’s because Kidman is practically ageless, but that’s just a really tough beat for Morrison. I haven’t felt this bad for the guy since Mace Windu decapitated him.
23. The Atlantis Political System
Assuming the Atlantis of Aquaman aligns with the timeline of Plato’s writings on the mythical island, then the kingdom has been around for thousands of years. But while Atlantis is an underwater marvel filled with futuristic technology, its political system hasn’t caught up with the times. For one, Atlanna’s punishment for deserting the kingdom and embracing the #LighthouseLife is getting chucked into the Trench—a gnarly death sentence. (Atlanna survives the ordeal, but more on that later.) If that weren’t antiquated enough, the Atlantis leadership takes a cue from a Finding Nemo bit:
Is a judicial “Ring of Fire” and underwater gladiator battles for the throne the best way to govern Atlantis in the 21st century? Definitely not. Is it stupidly entertaining? Oh, you bet it is.
22. Atlantean Scouting Reports
Sticking with Atlantis, here’s how Arthur and his half brother, King Orm (Patrick Wilson), are described to the coliseum’s attendees before their epic showdown:
I’m sensing a bias here; I also need to know exactly what it takes to become a “Coral Heart Medal War Hero.”
21. Toilet Humor
An interesting (and somewhat unexplained) feature of Atlantean biology is that members of royal bloodlines—for example, Orm and Mera—can survive on land, while common folk are able to breathe only underwater. It adds an element of danger for Orm’s soldiers in their pursuit of Arthur, and in the case of Captain Murk (Ludi Lin), the leader of Atlantis’s men-of-war—I see what they did there—it prompts a moment of indignity. After Murk apprehends Mera in Sicily, she springs a major leak in his suit, leaving him with mere seconds to save himself. He reacts accordingly:
I would also like to point out that this is the last time we see Murk in the film. Is he still alive? Did the Sicilians assume he got his head stuck in the toilet and try pulling him out? Would flushing count as a form of torture? These thoughts have left me with many sleepless nights, and I hope The Lost Kingdom answers all of our pressing Captain Murk questions. For now, though, his future is quite … murky. (I’ll see myself out and jump into the Hudson.)
20. Mera’s Jelly-Dress
I don’t mean to discriminate against our undersea brethren, but they sure do have some [clears throat] interesting fashion choices. Case in point: Mera attends the Orm-Arthur coliseum duel wearing part of my seafood dinner:
Is this the Atlantean equivalent of someone on the surface wearing a fur coat? I just want to know whether we should get the Ocean Conservancy to look into this.
19. Black Manta’s Tender Father-Son Moment
The secondary villain of Aquaman is Black Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), a mercenary of the high seas who attacks a Russian submarine at the start of the film. But for Manta (real name David Kane), pirating happens to be a family affair: His father, Jesse (Michael Beach; destined to appear in an oceanic blockbuster), is the leader of their crew. When Arthur thwarts the pirate attack with ease, Jesse gets caught under one of the submarine’s missiles during the tussle, which leads Manta to begging Aquaman for help. Unfortunately, Arthur refuses on the grounds that they’ve murdered innocent people. With the sub quickly sinking, Jesse has mere moments left with his son—but instead of saying something heartfelt, he goes with this:
To ensure Manta doesn’t waste any more time trying to rescue him, Jesse then holds up a damn grenade that he detonates in the midst of drowning. Manta might have a new life mission—kill Aquaman—but what he really needs is an ocean’s worth of therapy sessions.
18. Black Manta Entering the Concussion Protocol
While Black Manta does get a rematch with Arthur after tracking him down in Sicily, he does not, in fact, kill that son of a bitch. Equipped with Atlantean technology, Manta puts up a good fight against Arthur, but a malfunctioning jet pack ends up being his undoing. (Does that make Manta the Boba Fett of the Aquaman universe?) And so Manta goes careening down a cliff—a sequence that looks like a Jackass stunt gone horribly wrong:
Under normal circumstances, this would turn someone’s head into a scrambled egg. But against all odds, Manta reappears in Aquaman’s mid-credits scene with a bandage wrapped around half his face. Two questions: Was that helmet made out of Vibranium (different superhero universe; don’t care)? And also, HOW THE FUCK IS HE ALIVE? In any case, I’m not complaining: Manta and his kickass suit are back for the sequel, where he’s been upgraded to Main Antagonist duties. Keep wearing that helmet, big guy.
17. The Marine Biologist Opening His Third Eye
Unprecedented scientific breakthroughs can go unappreciated in their time. Galileo Galilei discovered that the Earth revolved around the sun, but his findings led to him being placed under house arrest for the remainder of his days. Now, imagine if you were a marine biologist, and you believed not only that Atlantis was real, but that there was a subset of humans who lived underwater. Yeah, it’s not gonna go well:
For Dr. Stephen Shin (Randall Park), being an Atlantis truther has made him a subject of intense ridicule. (When I asked a real marine biologist what would happen if someone in their field believed Atlantis was real, he said that person would be laughed off as a “nut.”) But it won’t be long until Dr. Shin gets the last laugh. In Aquaman’s mid-credits scene, it’s Dr. Shin who rescues Black Manta, who has seen firsthand what Atlanteans are capable of. In his search for answers, it appears Dr. Shin is going to align himself with a very bad dude in The Lost Kingdom. If that happens, he’ll go down as pop culture’s worst marine biologist since George Costanza.
16. The Khal Drogo Callback
Even though he didn’t survive the first season of Game of Thrones, Jason Momoa’s role as the Dothraki warlord Khal Drogo catapulted the actor to the mainstream. It’s hard to imagine what Momoa’s career would look like without Thrones, and if an opportunity like Aquaman would even be in the cards. As it turns out, Aquaman pays homage to its star’s Dothraki past, but only if you pay close attention. Following our hero’s showdown with Black Manta in Sicily, which leaves him gravely injured, Arthur passes out. When he comes to, Mera has commandeered a boat and patched up his wounds. But something about Arthur’s new look feels quite familiar:
Right down to the wound on his chest, Arthur is in full Drogo cosplay. It’s a nice little Easter egg for the Thrones obsessives out there, and a reminder of how far Momoa has come since pouring a pot of boiling gold onto Viserys Targaryen’s face.
15. The Jason Momoa Smolder
When it comes to the Movie Star Smolder, we can all smell what Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson is cooking. After all, Johnson’s smolder is so striking that it became an actual character trait in the new Jumanji movies. But if Johnson is Hollywood’s reigning king of the smolder, then Momoa could be a worthy prince-in-waiting. Just look at how Arthur introduces himself in Aquaman:
The hair flip, the casual-yet-suggestive look over the shoulder? Permission granted.
14. Arthur Taking Selfies at a Local Dive Bar
Arthur may be a superhero, but he doesn’t like the attention that comes from it. In Zack Snyder’s Justice League, Arthur is downright pissed that Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) tracked him down to a remote Icelandic village; clearly, this is someone who prefers being off the grid. So when a group of bikers ask Arthur for a selfie in the middle of “breakfast” with his dad—translation: inhaling several pints of beer from a local dive bar—you fear for the worst. Thankfully, that’s the beauty of a good ale. Sooner or later, everyone lets go of their inhibitions:
13. Nicole Kidman Swallowing a Goldfish
The fact that Nicole Kidman, a legendary thespian with an Oscar and two Emmys to her name, agreed to be in Aquaman is incredible in and of itself. But before the audience can even process her participation in the movie, Atlanna straight-up swallows a goldfish:
The in-universe explanation is that Atlanna has no understanding of the surface world when she’s being nursed back to health by Tom. To us, a fish tank is just something that people have in their home; to Atlanna, it’s the equivalent of an office leaving out a bowl of mints for customers. Sidenote: I need to know what happened when Tom took Atlanna to her first sushi restaurant.
12. Nicole Kidman as Patrick Wilson’s Mom
I don’t want this to be misconstrued as ageism against either actor, but I simply can’t fathom why Nicole Kidman was cast as Patrick Wilson’s mother. When Aquaman was released in 2018, Kidman was 51 years old; Wilson, meanwhile, was 45. Seeing the characters reunite at the end of Aquaman, they look more like long-lost siblings. And yet:
Even in a movie featuring advanced underwater societies and a protagonist who can talk to fish, I still can’t suspend my disbelief that Atlanna is supposed to be Orm’s mother. Was Atlanna a child bride? Do Atlanteans age slower when they spend time on the surface? Is Orm one of those dudes who looks way older than he actually is, otherwise known as the Reverse Paul Rudd? This is my Spotlight.
11. Black Manta’s Montage
After getting his ass handed to him by Arthur in their first fight, Black Manta gets a helpful assist from Orm, who provides him with state-of-the-art Atlantean technology. The tech becomes the basis for Manta’s objectively awesome suit, but not before an inspirational montage that puts the whole thing together.
For one glorious minute, Aquaman transforms into a corny ’80s movie, and I love every second of it. (It’s even more bizarre because the montage is centered around a murderous, vengeful pirate.) The greatest endorsement for this sequence’s wacky, enduring appeal is that it’s become the subject of memes. I can only hope that James Wan runs back the montage making for the sequel.
10. The Brine King
As Orm goes about uniting all the underwater kingdoms—often by force—the last one standing in the way of him officially being crowned Ocean Master is the Kingdom of the Brine. These crab-like beings are led by the Brine King (voiced by John Rhys-Davies), who more than lives up to his title:
I fucking love this guy. My Brother in Brine has got giant pincers for hands, and when Orm defeats him in battle, he still refuses to pledge his allegiance. (The Brine King also calls Orm a “soft-bellied slug,” which is a huge burn in the oceanic community.) Throw in the fact that the Brine King is voiced by the man who played Gimli in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, and you can definitely connect the dots between the crab-people and the Dwarves of Middle Earth: short, stout, proud, and not to be underestimated. The Brine King has precious little screen time in Aquaman; thankfully, he’s returning for The Lost Kingdom. Here’s to hoping the Brine King has a more significant role in the sequel. As my fellow Brine-heads can attest: You can never have too much crab on the menu.
9. The Hidden Sea
I’ve watched Aquaman more times than I’d care to admit, but I still don’t know how to describe the Hidden Sea. Here’s my best stab at it: It’s a magical realm inside the Earth’s core that can be accessed only through a maelstrom within the Trench (more on that shortly), and is home to Atlanna, who was long presumed dead, as well as dinosaurs. Yes, dinosaurs:
The best part of this batshit development is that the whole “we’re surrounded by prehistoric creatures” aspect of the Hidden Sea is barely acknowledged by the characters. I’ve never watched a movie that was so casually dismissive of the inclusion of goddamn dinosaurs. Oddly enough, this is the second Warner Bros. franchise that subscribes to Hollow Earth Theory: In the Monsterverse, a hidden ecosystem within the Earth’s core is the original home of Titans like Godzilla and Kong. On a totally unrelated note, the higher-ups at Warner Bros. should really lay off the LSD.
8. The Julie Andrews Leviathan
Let me take you back to December of 2018. In the lead-up to Christmas, Disney released Mary Poppins Returns—the highly anticipated sequel to the 1964 classic—with Emily Blunt taking over the title role. The great Dick Van Dyke has a cameo at the end of the movie, showing that he can still pull off dance moves well into his 90s. Dame Julie Andrews, the OG Poppins, also makes a notable appearance in a blockbuster released over the holidays—just not the one you’d expect. I present to you: Julie Andrews in the form of an ancient, man-eating Leviathan:
I like to picture Andrews having to deal with her own version of the red pill–blue pill conundrum from The Matrix: either reappear in the legacy sequel to one of the most iconic films of her career, or voice the mythical creature that threatens to devour Jason Momoa if King Atlan’s trident deems him unworthy to wield it. I think she chose wisely.
7. Pitbull’s “Ocean to Ocean”
“They tried to get rid of me / but from ocean to ocean / they gonna have to deal with me.”
So begins Pitbull’s “Ocean to Ocean,” an original rap for the Aquaman soundtrack with a hook that covers Toto’s “Africa.” Nothing I write could fully encapsulate the so-bad-it’s-good vibes of this song; take a listen for yourself. But be warned: You’ll never be the same.
“Ocean to Ocean” received a lot of flak at the time of release, but all the haters are missing the point: The cheesiness is a feature, not a bug. “Putting the song in the sequence where Aquaman and Mera walk out of the water in slow motion, I felt: For fuck’s sake, let’s have fun with it!” Wan explained to Business Insider. “It’s something out of Fast and Furious.” Wan would know: He directed Furious 7, a.k.a. The One Where Dom Drives Between Skyscrapers. All told, this is the best use of “Africa” since Scrubs. Bless the rains, and bless Pitbull for this abomination.
6. Underwater World-Building
Aquaman is camp, but it still takes a lot of serious work to bring Wan’s bonkers vision to life. New technology had to be developed for the film’s many sequences set below the surface, and the results are thrillingly transportive. Atlantis, for instance, looks like someone gave Tron: Legacy and the Star Wars prequels an undersea makeover:
Aquaman bounces around the globe so much that we spend tragically little time in Atlantis, but what we do see has some fascinating implications. There’s plenty of intraspecies unity, as evidenced by whales’ and sea turtles’ contributions to the kingdom’s supply chain:
Forget Ice Road Truckers; give me a reality show about blue whales transporting goods throughout our majestic seas. But whether or not you’re a fan of Aquaman and its expansive world-building, I think we can all agree: The fact that the movie wasn’t even nominated for Best Visual Effects at the Oscars is an absolute disgrace.
5. All About Orm
Martin Scorsese has Robert De Niro; James Wan has Patrick Wilson. Ever since Wilson appeared in 2010’s Insidious, he and Wan have worked together on five films; The Lost Kingdom will mark their sixth collaboration. I’m not sure what kind of notes Wan had for Wilson when casting him as the villainous Orm, but it appears the director really wanted him to yell. I can’t stress this enough: Wilson yells so much in Aquaman that someone put together a compilation on YouTube.
Orm’s constant wailing is completely over the top, but it aligns perfectly with the character. This is a guy who clearly wants the respect of his peers, all while he embarks on a single-minded quest to be dubbed “Ocean Master.” When Wilson utters this line with sincere conviction, it’s one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen:
In the end, Orm never gets to become Ocean Master, but he’s earned a worthy consolation prize: He’s the undisputed master of screaming at the top of his lungs.
4. Explosive Interruptions
Of all the WTF storytelling choices in Aquaman, this one takes the cake. Have you noticed …
that almost every exposition scene …
gets interrupted by …
I would like to give a special shout-out to Aquaman’s screenwriters, David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick and Will Beall, who have unlocked an incredible cheat code. When you don’t know how to transition between scenes, just ask yourself, WWMBD: What Would Michael Bay Do?
3. The Octopus Playing the Drums
Before Arthur and Orm begin their underwater gladiator battle, a giant octopus helps set the tone:
The Travis Barker of mollusks even has a name, Topo, and according to Wan, he’ll have a much bigger role in The Lost Kingdom. “He’s an actual character in this one,” Wan told Entertainment Weekly. The article also showcases a photo of Arthur riding a giant seahorse into battle with Topo attached to its body like a glorified sidecar. I pray to God that Topo gets to speak in The Lost Kingdom and that he’s voiced by Arnold Schwarzenegger or Sylvester Stallone.
2. The Trench
Aquaman is an unapologetically goofy movie, but in one memorable sequence, Wan reminds viewers that he cut his teeth on horror. As Arthur and Mera travel to King Atlan’s final resting place, they discover that their journey has led them straight to the Trench: a creepy deep-sea kingdom whose inhabitants have devolved into rabid, flesh-eating monsters. The creatures of the Trench are sensitive to light, so Arthur uses flares to repel them, leading to the single-most striking image of the film:
This scene absolutely ripped in an IMAX theater, by the way.
The Trench was such a memorable inclusion in Aquaman that Warner Bros. green-lit an entire spinoff about it called, you guessed it, The Trench. (As Wan later revealed, the spinoff would’ve been a Black Manta solo adventure.) Alas, The Trench was shelved by the studio in 2021, and with the DC Universe undergoing a hard reset under Gunn’s stewardship, the spinoff will be nothing more than a cinematic what-if. At least we’ll always have Arthur and Mera’s … Trench warfare.
1. James Wan
What unites all of Aquaman’s idiosyncrasies is the deranged visionary behind the camera. Whether he’s kick-starting a horror franchise or shepherding crowd-pleasing blockbusters, Wan brings to the table a level of kitschy flair and craftsmanship that few directors have today. If the rest of the Snyderverse was too self-serious for its own good, Wan swung in the opposite direction. Aquaman is sincere without ever taking itself seriously, and whether it’s featuring a drum-playing octopus or a crab monarch called the Brine King, the movie is always in on the joke. The action scenes are so overwhelming to the senses that you want to smoke a cigarette after sitting through them. To be clear, this is a compliment, even though I can’t begin to explain what’s going on here:
Aquaman might not be the best superhero movie, but it sure as hell takes the crown for being the most superhero movie. But don’t mistake the mindless fun of Aquaman as being mindless altogether; the chaos is entirely by design. It’s James Wan’s world; we’re just being submerged in it.