I just feel bad for Orm. He’s pompous and strangely boring, but the guy’s heart is basically in the right place. In the first “Aquaman” movie, he was so upset by the surface dwellers (that’s us) who have polluted the seas — the home of his people — that he wanted to unite the armies of Atlantis and punish us. Who could blame him?
Yet his crown was stripped away by his half brother, a swaggering goofball with a raggedy haircut who grew up above the surface. Same guy also stole Orm’s fiancée, beat him in a fight in front of the whole nation and imprisoned him. Also, this brother, Arthur, has a cool nickname, while Orm is saddled with a moniker that sounds like the noise you make when someone elbows you in the gut. Fate has been no friend to Orm.
When James Wan’s delightful stand-alone movie about the Atlantean hero-king Aquaman (a.k.a. Arthur) and his sad-sack brother came out in 2018, I found Patrick Wilson’s Orm, who is very handsome in a slightly bland manner, to be the dullest part of an entertaining romp. Aquaman, as played by the towering trunk of a man named Jason Momoa, was quippy and funny, delivering his lines with just enough of an off-kilter smirk to make him, and his movie, a hit. Orm was his foil and his nemesis, the kind of bitter brotherly rivalry that exists across histories both real and imagined.
But in “Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom,” for which Wan and most of his cast returned, Orm is — fun? Sure, when we meet him again he is enduring the distinctly un-fun experience of being imprisoned by death-worshipping ascetics who drink blood for sustenance, and he looks, as Arthur says, rough. Once revived a bit, he’s still pompous and bitter and prone to speaking without the use of contractions. But he’s developed a personality and a mild sense of humor, and he ends up eating bugs with enjoyment. Good for Orm.
Oh, right, Arthur is back, too. He’s grown a little boring since we last saw him, a fate that admittedly greets many exhausted parents of young children. He and Mera (Amber Heard) split their time between Atlantis, where they rule, and the lighthouse, where their bouncing baby boy, Arthur Jr., stays with his grandfather (Temuera Morrison) and urinates in Arthur’s eye during diaper changes. At work, Arthur has learned, to his chagrin, a lesson best summed up in “Hamilton”: winning was easy, but governing’s harder. He has to deal with the Council, who are annoyed that he spends so much time on the surface, and he has to protect his people from enemies, foreign and domestic. On top of everything, there’s a plague going around under the sea, fierce enough to have taken the life of Arthur’s mentor Vulko. (Presumably Willem Dafoe was off doing other things, like “Poor Things.”)
The mention of a plague in 2023 brings with it more visceral, viral baggage than it would have in 2018, and as in our world, this crisis is compounded by polluted waters and warming temperatures. The notion of human-driven climate change as an inciting factor for turmoil was present in the first “Aquaman” — how could it not have been? — but it’s foregrounded in this sequel and linked explicitly to the antagonist: David Kane a.k.a. Black Manta (the always-terrific Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), who is still extremely angry with Arthur for killing his father. He’s teamed up with Dr. Stephen Shin (Randall Park), the Atlantis-obsessed scientist glimpsed in the first movie, to find and destroy his prey.
There are a whole bunch of subplots in “Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom,” the least interesting of which is the actual Lost Kingdom. Everything is tangentially related to orichalcum, which in real life is an alloy beloved by the ancients for its resemblance to gold. In Aquaman’s world, it’s a substance the ancients used to generate power that has nearly destroyed the world because — as Atlanna (Nicole Kidman) explains to her sons — it emits a whole lot of greenhouse gases. (People in the movie talk so seriously and incessantly about orichalcum that people at my screening started to giggle.) Obviously, bad guys like Black Manta want this substance, and will stop at nothing, not even the destruction of the planet, to get it and the power it brings.
This is a metaphor, and a straightforward one at that — refreshing, as metaphors about power (and fascism and authoritarianism) are often muddled and pointless in superhero films. Linking greed, power, death and destruction to a rapidly warming planet makes narrative sense in this context. (Though this point does get slightly undermined, in that characters angrily denounce planet-warming emissions but tuck happily into beef burgers — but this is also a movie in which an octopus rides a seahorse, so it’s probably wise not to get too caught up in the specifics.)
What makes the “Aquaman” franchise work is Wan’s hand pulling the strings. He’s one of the great horror writers and directors of our time (he had a part in creating the “Saw,” “Insidious,” and “Conjuring” franchises, to name just a few), and it shows in his melding of adventure with sheer creepiness. You can sense influences ranging from Japanese monsters movies and Tolkien to “Mad Max” and “Indiana Jones,” all done with a light touch. Wan takes Aquaman’s story beyond the paint-by-numbers superhero movies we’ve been watching for decades now, and that makes it feel like a film for grown-ups who like fun.
Admittedly, “Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom” is not as fun as “Aquaman” was. That might be inevitable. Building a world tends to be more exciting than living in it. The film’s emotional core rests not on the genuinely sweet love story of Atlanna and Tom, or even of Arthur and Mera, but on this less affecting brotherly relationship. Arthur’s quips are getting less charming and more grating. And you might find yourself wondering exactly how many times someone can be saved at the last second.
But the movie is clever enough, and plenty scary, and there is a sufficient number of jokes to keep the whole thing from getting too self-important. Even Orm loosens up by the end. There’s hope for him yet.
Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom
Rated PG-13, for scary creepy-crawlies and mild profanity. Running time: 2 hours 4 minutes. In theaters.