After many delays, due to everything from COVID to studio regime changes, Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom opens this December, with the new debut of the first trailer for the film officially kicking the film’s marketing into gear. The sequel to the megahit 2018 Aquaman film — still the largest grossing movie based on any DC Comics character ever, worldwide (yep, all Batman films included!) — The Lost Kingdom brings back director James Wan to once more guide the adventures of Arthur Curry/Aquaman (Jason Momoa).
As the trailer suggests, there’s a mismatched partner dynamic at the core of The Lost Kingdom, as Arthur must team with his enemy in the first film, his own brother, Orm Marius, AKA Ocean Master (Patrick Wilson), to stop the threat posed by the returning Black Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II). Speaking to a group of press during an early look at the trailer this week, Wan said there are a lot of other elements to the movie as well, noting “It is a little bit darker than the first movie, as second movies tend to be, and it just felt like the correct progression for for this film.”
Wan also spoke about expanding the world of Aquaman, including the environmental message that’s often been important to the character, including more horror elements, and keeping things weird – drum-playing octopus included!
And yes, he addressed the oddness of completing the movie as the entire approach to DC films and the ongoing DC Extended Universe that Aquaman had been a part of was being overhauled into what will soon be a new streamlined DCU/DC Universe.
MANTA LEVELS UP
Black Manta was in the first Aquaman movie, but it was in a smaller role, especially given how prominent a villain he is in the comics. As Wan explained, “My plan with the first movie was always to set up the relationship [between Aquaman and Black Manta]. He was kind of like a glorified side character in the first one but we knew that that was going to be okay because we knew that the second movie was where we ultimately get to go into with him in a much bigger role.”
It’s Manta who’s key to the Lost Kingdom of the title, a legendary part of Atlantis history that is unearthed with dangerous consequences. Said Wan, of Black Manta, “After the first movie, he is on this relentless quest to kill Arthur Curry and to just destroy everything that Arthur has built, so he’s been searching nonstop for ways to do that. Without giving too much away here, in his search to try and fix the power suit that he had in the first movie that was all banged up and destroyed, he stumbles across something much bigger.”
As Wan put it, though Black Manta remains a human in the new film, “because he has stumbled onto the Lost Kingdom, he’s now empowered in a way that he wasn’t in the first film.”
At one point, Wan was initially developing The Trench, a potential spinoff movie involving the creatures called the Trench introduced in the first Aquaman. That movie was ultimately cancelled (as Wan explains it now, “We didn’t want that project to potentially step on the Aquaman films”), and the director has since revealed The Trench had actually been intended to focus on Black Manta. Asked if any elements planned for that movie had now made it into The Lost Kingdom, he replied “the answer is yes,” adding, “We came up with a lot of really interesting ideas and really cool stuff that I felt we could we could use in this one. With The Trench movie, it was going to be a secret Black Manta movie… And so when that didn’t happen, some of those ideas found its way into this.”
UNCLE OCEAN MASTER
When The Lost Kingdom begins, Arthur and his wife, Mera (Amber Heard), have had a son and are living a happy life until Black Manta’s return. In this time of crisis, Arthur needs to reach out to his imprisoned brother, Orm, for help, with Wan observing “They have to ultimately be a family together,” before the Furious 7 director added, with a chuckle, “I learned about family from Fast & Furious, you guys! It plays into this in a big, big way. No, seriously, the family aspect in this was something that was very important for me. And you can have Vin to thank for that!”
Like with Black Manta, Wan was already thinking towards a sequel with Orm in the first film, explaining, “The plan was always going to be that Patrick’s character was going to switch. I knew that from the get go… That’s why I didn’t want to kill him at the end of the first movie. He was gonna ultimately be somewhat of a pseudo-antihero in this one. And I wanted to see the relationship between between Jason and Patrick. These two are really great in the film. They’ve got such great camaraderie and good chemistry that I describe the second one as a bromance movie… It’s really kind of like Tango & Cash. That was the spirit that we were going for.”
Though Orm is a reluctant ally to Arthur in the new film, Wan noted, “It’s still very important to still remember where he came from. And so there’s still antagonism between the two of them throughout the whole movie, which is actually where some of the fun derives from, just to see the two of them bicker. But at the same time, also leaning on the more sort of human aspect of his character. If you look at him in the first film, he was just trying to do what is right for his people. So from that perspective, he doesn’t see himself as a bad guy, so to speak. He’s just trying to protect his people. And I think because of that, Arthur respects that as well. And again, Arthur is so much about the family dynamic. We touched a bit on this in the first film, how he’s always wanted to reach out to his younger brother and try and build a relationship. Well, he gets to do that in this film.”
THE ENVIRONMENTAL HERO
When it came to Aquaman and important elements to include, Wan remarked, “One of the things we love about the Aquaman character and the world that they live in is, especially from the comic book, is just how much how much Aquaman has always been about the environment more than any of the superhero characters. And so we felt that we wanted to lean into the environmental aspect with this movie. We wanted the second film to still be fun and really adventurous and colorful, and everything like the first film, but we want to have a little bit more… To say something a little bit more grown up.”
The Lost Kingdom itself is, in Wan’s words, “a world that was locked away for a very good reason. [Screenwriter] David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick and myself, we felt like the evil of the Lost Kingdom is really a great metaphor for how us humans, we keep tapping our Earth for these natural resources and will go to great lengths to do what we need to get energy and for money and for all of that – for profit, right? And without thinking about the consequences of what it would do to the world, to the environment, and this is almost like an analogy. It’s like, sure, we can keep drilling, but if we drill too deep, we may unleash some ancient evil that we probably would not want to mess with.”
Added Wan, “Look at us, this is like one of the hottest summers we’ve ever experienced, right? Not just in the US, but everywhere around the world. We really do lean into that. The environment is shifting very much in this movie. And Arthur needs to be able to work with his brother to try and stop this from spiraling into complete catastrophe… So that is obviously another big theme. We don’t want it to be too preachy, but we’re definitely not shy about that because I think that’s something that we need to talk about even in a context like a like a fun adventure movie.”
The first Aquaman made a big impression with its vibrant visuals, including its bold creature designs, and Wan promised, “This one leans into the Ray Harryhausen sort of spirit even more. There’s shades of Jules Verne in this as well. And as you can see in the trailer, aesthetically, I’m leaning pretty heavily into the Silver Age comic books… the 1960s, Silver Age Aquaman. So a lot of the designs in this film are very retro feeling. The spirit and the tone is very retro.”
When it came to some of the nastier creatures in the film, the director — known just as much for smaller budget franchise-creating horror hits like Saw, The Conjuring and Insidious as his massive budget blockbuster films — said, with a grin, “I don’t know how to stay away from horror! So in The Lost Kingdom, we will be introduced to a lot of creepy, scary, Lovecraftian-looking characters. And ultimately, that’s what our heroes have to work together to stop – this Lovecraftian universe from breaking through into our main world.”
Though Wan says “I just naturally lean into that darker stuff,” he added that he keeps the intended audience in mind for the particular project. “I felt like the Aquaman films allows me to play in my love for that genre, for the horror genre, but still make them fun, and not necessarily too scary that young kids that may like these films won’t be able to watch it because it’s too frightening. And so that that’s the fine line, trying to capture that sort of early Spielberg spirit. We can kind of lean dark, but it can also be fun as well. And there definitely is sort of shades of that in this world. We’re just leaning into the monsters of it all. But for me, it really is just scratching the surface. It makes me want to do more, put it that way!”
Aquaman also stood out among other superhero movies for not being afraid to be flat out weird and wacky, such as its popular inclusion of a drum-playing octopus named Topo. Asked if it emboldened him while making the sequel that mainstream audiences clearly were willing to embrace what the first movie offered, Wan replied, “I’ve never been shy of leaning weird. Every movie I’ve made has been pretty weird. You guys have seen Malignant – you would know how I like to go weird! That was part of the reason why, very early on, when I was given a few [DC] properties to look at, I picked this particular one because I felt like I can really lean into that world, the quirkiness, the weirdness, and just have fun with it.”
That being said, Wan added, “Yes, definitely, seeing how much people enjoyed that in the first film meant that gave me more confidence to lean into it in this one. I know the trailer doesn’t quite touch on it, but there are a lot of really quirky underwater characters in this one. And it may be weird to us, but not for them, you know what I mean? That’s another species. That’s another race for them. Arthur, the King of Atlantis, those are his people. And yes, Topo has a big, big role in this. A much bigger role in this one!”
AQUAMAN AND THE CHANGING DCU
To say a lot has changed in terms of the DCEU since the first Aquaman opened is a huge understatement. There were numerous changes in strategy occurring behind the scenes before a huge shift finally was made with James Gunn and Peter Safran (a producer on both Aquaman films) being put in charge of a revamped DC Studios that will launch a new cinematic DC Universe. Meanwhile, The Lost Kingdom‘s placement on the schedule changed several times and even whether or not it would open before or after The Flash went back and forth, with that film giving an onscreen reason for at least some of the previous DCEU characters to now be in a different universe, Aquaman included.
There have been numerous reports of how these changes have at least partially affected The Lost Kingdom, including shooting a Bruce Wayne/Batman cameo with two different actors: First, Michael Keaton, then Ben Affleck, and now the likelihood neither will appear in the film thanks to subsequent changes.
Wan hasn’t wanted to get specific on those aspects and recently told EW he was staying quiet on whether any Batman at all appears in the movie in its final form, but he stresses that by and large, Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom was allowed to do its own thing through all of this. It never had major storyline ties to other DC characters so it didn’t need to change in any notable ways no matter what was going on.
Said Wan, after showing us the trailer, “Definitely, I’m aware of everything that’s happening around me. I use the analogy that I’m living in a house that’s getting renovated and so it’s hard to not be aware of the renovation that’s happening around me. But that’s the beauty about Aquaman 2 and Aquaman 1. I’ve always designed these two films to be within their own world. And so the advantage about not being hooked into this bigger universe is ultimately whatever happens over there, it doesn’t really affect my movie. And so, as you can see, in this film, it doesn’t hook into anything, it lives in its own world. And that’s pretty much what we found works really well for us on the first film, and we’re doing exactly the same there. And so, sure, there’s noises going around, but I’m just in my cocoon, in my underwater kingdom.”
As for the future, Wan says there is indeed an idea for where a third Aquaman film could go, regardless of what universe it may take place in. Asked if there could be more for this incarnation of the character, he replied, “What I can speak to that is the Jason Momoa story, as Aquaman, definitely has more places to go and when we get to the end of this [movie], the answer is yes… I don’t know how to answer that without giving things away, because where we go at the end of this movie, it does tee up a direction for that story. And I don’t want to speak to that, just because it’s the end of the movie!”
Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom opens December 20, 2023.
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