Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom is a 2023 American superhero film based on the DC character Aquaman. Produced by DC Studios, Atomic Monster, the Safran Company, and Domain Entertainment, and distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures, it is the sequel to Aquaman (2018), and the 15th film and final installment in the DC Extended Universe (DCEU). The film was directed by James Wan from a screenplay by David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick, and stars Jason Momoa as Arthur Curry / Aquaman, alongside Patrick Wilson, Amber Heard, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Randall Park, Dolph Lundgren, Temuera Morrison, Martin Short, and Nicole Kidman. In the film, Arthur must work with his half-brother Orm (Wilson) to prevent Black Manta (Abdul-Mateen II) from killing his family and using the cursed Black Trident to overheat the world while searching for the lost seventh kingdom of the seas.
Momoa pitched a story for an Aquaman sequel during production of the first film. Wan did not want to rush a sequel but agreed in January 2019 to oversee development. Johnson-McGoldrick signed on to return as screenwriter a month later, and Wan was confirmed to be returning as director in August 2020. He said the film would expand on Aquaman‘s worldbuilding, have a more serious tone, and feature themes such as climate change. It is a buddy comedy between Aquaman and Orm, and was inspired by the Silver Age of Comic Books with a retro science fiction vibe similar to the works of animator Ray Harryhausen and the horror films of the 1960s, specifically Planet of the Vampires (1965). Wan announced the sequel’s title in June 2021, ahead of the start of filming at the end of the month. Filming concluded in January 2022, taking place in the United Kingdom, Hawaii, Los Angeles, and New Jersey, with additional filming in New Zealand.
Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom premiered at a fan event at the Grove, Los Angeles on December 19, 2023, and was released in the United States on December 22. The film received generally negative reviews from critics and has grossed $397 million worldwide.
During the production of Aquaman (2018), star Jason Momoa developed a story pitch for a sequel that he gave to Warner Bros. Pictures Group chairman Toby Emmerich and producer Peter Safran. In October 2018, before the film’s release, Momoa said he would be more involved in the development of a potential sequel and expected filming to begin in 2019. Director James Wan said there were several storylines that could spin out from Aquaman, with that film introducing seven underwater kingdoms that had yet to be fully explored. Momoa and his producing partner Brian Mendoza wrote a 50-page treatment for the sequel, which Warner Bros. bought but did not entirely follow, and the actor was paid $15 million for his involvement. Emmerich had enough confidence in box office projections for the film by early December to begin discussing a sequel. By the end of January 2019, when Aquaman was set to become the highest-grossing film based on a single DC Comics character, Warner Bros. was in negotiations with Wan to oversee the development and writing of a sequel with the potential to return as director. Geoff Boucher of Deadline Hollywood noted that Wan had been very protective of sequels to his previous films Insidious (2010) and The Conjuring (2013), and was “deeply invested” in the worldbuilding of Aquaman. Wan had previously compared the world of Aquaman to other fictional worlds such as Middle-earth, the Star Wars galaxy, and the Wizarding World.
In early February 2019, Warner Bros. hired Noah Gardner and Aidan Fitzgerald to write the script for a “horror-tinged” Aquaman spin-off film titled The Trench, based on one of the kingdoms introduced in the first film. It was expected to have a smaller budget and not feature the main cast of Aquaman, with Wan and Safran producing. Borys Kit of The Hollywood Reporter reported then that there had not yet been serious discussions about a direct sequel to Aquaman between the studio, Wan, and Momoa, due to them wanting to have a “breather” first, but several days later he reported that active development on a sequel was getting underway with the first film’s co-writer, and frequent Wan collaborator, David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick signing on to write the screenplay. Wan and Safran were producing the sequel, though it was still unclear if Wan would direct it. At the end of February, Warner Bros. scheduled Aquaman 2 for release on December 16, 2022. The next month, Safran explained that he and Wan did not want to rush a sequel, and Warner Bros. had been supportive of that which is why the film’s release was scheduled for four years after the first film. He added that they were approaching the Aquaman franchise in a similar way to the Conjuring Universe, with spin-offs like The Trench exploring stories about the underwater kingdoms alongside the “mothership” films starring Aquaman. Safran said Wan knew “the architecture, the armory, the military, the look, the feel, the general vibe” of each of the seven kingdoms and wanted to explore them all in future projects.
In July 2019, Wan was set to direct the film Malignant (2021) before beginning work on Aquaman 2. Patrick Wilson said in November that he had discussed plans for the sequel with Wan and indicated that he would be reprising his role as Orm Marius / Ocean Master from the first film. A month later, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II confirmed that he was returning as David Kane / Black Manta, and was looking to flesh out the character. Johnson-McGoldrick stated in March 2020 that the sequel would not be based on a specific comic book, but was taking inspiration from the Aquaman stories of the Silver Age of Comic Books that featured Black Manta as the villain. Wan was confirmed to be directing the sequel at the virtual DC FanDome event in August, when he said it would be more serious than the first film and feature themes that were more relevant to the real world, such as climate change. He said the creatives were not afraid to address it in a big way through the film, and cited the Aquaman character being environmentally conscious in the comic books as someone who fights to keep the ocean clean. He also affirmed that the film would still remain a “fun action-fantasy movie”. Momoa said a scene was featured in the film in which Aquaman addresses the United Nations on climate change, with the actor having also done so at the UN’s Ocean Conference. Wan added that it would include more worldbuilding and exploration of the underwater kingdoms, and would feature some horror elements similar to the Trench sequence in the first film. Being able to expand on the worldbuilding of the first film was one of the key reasons that Wan chose to direct the sequel, along with Johnson-McGoldrick’s script which Wan felt had a “really cool story to bring all these characters back, and then growing them in a big way”. Safran felt embracing the mythic nature of the Aquaman character and pairing that with the film’s worldbuilding and visual storytelling made the film compelling, and he and Momoa both believed the film’s humor exceeded that of the first film, while Wan said Aquaman was at the center of the film with his charm and humor.
Amber Heard debunked rumors in November 2020 that she would not be reprising her role as Mera from the first film following allegations of domestic abuse made against her by her ex-husband Johnny Depp. That month, a petition to have Heard fired from the franchise received more than 1.5 million signatures, and came after Warner Bros. removed Depp from Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore (2022) when allegations made by The Sun that Depp abused Heard were ruled to be “substantially true” in a defamation lawsuit filed by Depp against The Sun. Safran said they never considered making the film without Heard and would not react to the “pure fan pressure” of the petition and other social media conversations. However, Heard later stated, during a defamation trial brought against her by Depp over a column in The Washington Post, that “they didn’t want to include” her in the film, and that she had to fight to keep her part. She claimed that revisions were made to the script that reduced her role to a “very pared down version”, including removing action sequences for her character, and she was unable to renegotiate her option contract that stipulated she would earn $2 million for the sequel, which was double what she made for the first film. By that point, in May 2022, the petition to have Heard removed from the film had received more than four million signatures. DC Films president Walter Hamada testified during the trial that the studio did consider recasting Mera, but this was due to concerns over Heard’s lack of chemistry with Momoa rather than the abuse allegations. Tatiana Siegel at Variety also reported that Heard had been “nearly fired” from the sequel after the first film’s release due to these concerns after having performed a chemistry test with Momoa for the first film, but these plans were abandoned after her ex-boyfriend Elon Musk intervened. Documents released from the defamation trial described a hostile on-set experience from Heard’s perspective allegedly caused by Momoa wanting the actress to be removed from the film and her feeling unsupported by Wan, although a DC spokesperson refuted these claims, calling the production a positive and collaborative experience. Hamada added that it was the studio’s philosophy to “hold people to their options” and not to renegotiate contracts, and said the size of Heard’s role had not changed during development of the sequel, and explained that the film was always intended to be a “buddy comedy” that focused on the relationship between Aquaman and Orm, which Safran compared to that of Nick Nolte and Eddie Murphy’s characters in the film 48 Hrs. (1982). Wan later said the film was written as a “bromance action-adventure” story focused on that relationship with the two brothers “overcoming their differences to save the world”, compared to the first film which focused on Aquaman’s relationship with Mera. The defamation trial’s jury found that Heard’s Washington Post column had damaged Depp’s career and she was ordered to pay him compensation. Social media responses to the trial also heavily favored Depp over Heard, with several memes and videos “mocking her testimony”. In June 2022, reports emerged that Heard had been fired from the film following the trial, but these were also debunked. Heard ultimately appeared for around 20 minutes in the film, with two of her scenes–a fight sequence with Black Manta and a love scene with Momoa–reportedly cut during production. Actor Dolph Lundgren, who portrays Mera’s father Nereus, later said that he and Heard had larger roles in the original script and cut but that the studio decided to reshoot much of the footage to rebuild the film with a slightly different storyline, resulting in their roles being reduced. Several commentators noted that many of Heard’s scenes were cut and that the remaining scenes appeared to be clunky and awkward.
- Jason Momoa as Arthur Curry / Aquaman:
The half-Atlantean, half-human king of Atlantis who can swim at supersonic speeds and summon and command aquatic life, and is the father of Arthur Jr. with Mera. Producer Peter Safran called Arthur the “ultimate outsider”, explaining he “doesn’t believe he’s part of the surface world or Atlantis” and he never felt he belonged in either worlds. Director James Wan said the film was a true continuation of the character’s story from the first film Aquaman (2018), explaining that Arthur is forced to juggle his duties as the king of Atlantis with his role as a father while protecting both his family and kingdom. Safran said the heart of the story was that Arthur is a superhero who is both human and a superhuman involved in an epic battle with high stakes. Wan felt including Arthur Jr. in the film was a natural extension of the first film and contrasted Arthur’s role as king with the juxtaposition of his domesticated responsibilities as a father.
- Patrick Wilson as Orm Marius:
Arthur’s Atlantean half-brother and the former king of Atlantis who is stripped of his title as the Ocean Master and imprisoned in the Sahara desert by the Deserter tribe without water to limit his power for murdering the Fisherman King in the first film, and initially has a disheveled appearance with long hair and a beard. He is freed from prison and recruited by Arthur to find and defeat Black Manta.
- Amber Heard as Mera:
The queen of Atlantis and former princess of Xebel, Arthur’s wife and mother of Arthur Jr., and King Nereus’ daughter who can control water. The character is injured early in the film and recovers for much of its events, before joining Aquaman, Orm, and Atlanna in their journey to defeat Black Manta. Several of Heard’s scenes were cut during reshoots.
- Yahya Abdul-Mateen II as David Kane / Black Manta:
A ruthless pirate and high-seas mercenary who uses an Atlantean armored suit and wields the powerful Black Trident, seeking to kill Arthur and his family as revenge for the death of his father. Wan said Black Manta’s love for his father and need to avenge his death take a darker turn in the film, with the character becoming more powerful. The director had planned while working on the first film to have Black Manta, who he described as having been a “glorified side character”, return as the main antagonist in its sequel, opting to establish his conflictive relationship with Arthur to give him a bigger role in this film. Black Manta seeks to obtain blood from a descendant of the Atlantean king Atlan to free the Black Trident’s creator Kordax from his imprisonment in the lost kingdom of Necrus, and commands an army of undead warriors from Necrus using the Black Trident which possesses him. Wan said Black Manta’s suit, which forgoes the all-black power suit from the first film for a design that was remade in all-silver and more accurate to the comics’ version, as well as his ship and technology, were inspired by the aesthetic of the Silver Age Aquaman comics and Ivan Reis’s The New 52 comics.
- Randall Park as Dr. Stephen Shin: A marine biologist obsessed with finding Atlantis who works for Black Manta after rescuing him in the first film.
- Dolph Lundgren as Nereus: The king of Xebel and Mera’s father. Lundgren had a larger role in the original version of the film which he said was reduced during reshoots.
- Temuera Morrison as Thomas Curry: Arthur’s father who works as a lighthouse keeper at Amnesty Bay.
- Martin Short as the voice of Kingfish:
A gigantic fish and the confident ruler of the Sunken Citadel, an underwater pirate haven, who Arthur and Orm visit to locate Black Manta. He has a smarmy and cocky voice and behaves like a classical Roman emperor with an extravagant surrounding and lady servants, and is guarded by hammerhead shark bodyguards.
- Nicole Kidman as Atlanna:
Arthur and Orm’s mother and the former queen of Atlantis. Atlanna’s role as Arthur’s advisor on how the underwater world works was able to be expanded upon given the absence of Nuidis Vulko, who served in that role in the first film and is revealed to have been killed off-screen due to a plague indirectly caused by Black Manta’s actions in this film and humanity’s pollution from the land affecting the oceans.
December 22, 2023
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