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.)