- Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom faced production delays and controversy, including doubts about Amber Heard’s return and changes in release dates due to regime changes at Warner Bros.
- Willem Dafoe, who played Nuidis Vulko in the first Aquaman film, did not return for the sequel due to scheduling conflicts with other projects.
- Director James Wan expanded the role of Atlanna, Arthur’s mother, to fill the absence of Vulko in the film, giving her an expanded role as Arthur’s advisor.
Aquaman premiered back in 2018, becoming an instant box-office success. The Jason Momoa-led film grossed more than $1 billion worldwide. In fact, no other DCEU film has grossed more than $1 billion, giving Aquaman a truly special place on the charts. Given the film’s massive success, it was no surprise to anyone to have a sequel for the movie announced. Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom was officially confirmed in 2021, and fans, expectedly, have been quite excited about the sequel’s release.
The film’s production was not without controversy. The first came from the status of star Amber Heard who played Aquaman’s love interest and eventual wife, Mera. Embroiled in a tense legal battle with ex-husband Johnny Depp, there were a lot of doubts regarding whether Heard would return to her role as Mera amidst the calls of many for another actress to replace Heard in her role. Then, on top of that, the movie was delayed multiple times from its original December 2022 release date to December 2023, where it was caught up in regime changes behind the scenes at Warner Bros. and James Gunn’s new DCU plans. Two separate Batman cameos were filmed, one with Michael Keaton when the movie was supposed to come out after The Flash originally, then one with Ben Affleck when The Flash was coming out after. Even though Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom was released after The Flash no Batman cameo was featured due to the upcoming DCU reboot.
However, the recently released movie Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom featured Heard’s return alongside Jason Momoa as the lead Arthur Curry, Temuera Morrison as Tom Curry, Patrick Wilson as Orm, Nicole Kidman as Atlanna, and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II as Black Manta. Notably absent from the lineup was Willem Dafoe, who played the character Nuidis Vulko in the first Aquaman film. With the film seemingly closing the door on the DCEU, why was Dafoe not in Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom, and how did the film explain it?
Updated January 24, 2024: With recent news about why Dafoe didn’t return for the sequel, this article has been updated with additional information.
Who Does William Dafoe Play in Aquaman?
Dafoe played the pivotal role of Nuidis Vulko in the 2018 Aquaman. As the mentor of Arthur Curry, and the character whom Atlanna, Arthur’s mother, assigned to train Arthur in her absence, Vulko guided and influenced how Arthur navigated the ocean realm and the conflict with his half-brother, King Orm.
Thanks to Dafoe’s Vulko, Arthur learns his history and heritage, including the fact that he is Queen Atlanna’s firstborn son and, therefore, the rightful heir to the Atlantis throne. However, Arthur rejects his rightful position, leaving Orm as the ruler of Atlantis, which does change at the conclusion of the film. With Vulko by his side, Arthur embarks on his mission to prevent a war from occurring between the ocean and land worlds.
The character played by Dafoe in Aquaman was perhaps a welcome change for viewers. Many are accustomed to seeing Dafoe take on the role of villains, with the actor widely known for his portrayal of Green Goblin in Marvel’s Spider-Man. Accustomed to Dafoe’s villainous roles, some Aquaman viewers were even waiting for the other shoe to drop. Reading into the character, maybe more than they should have, many were looking for a hidden motive behind Vulko’s seemingly benevolent mission of making Arthur the King of Atlantis. However, the shoe doesn’t drop, and the film concludes with Dafoe’s Vulko as one of the good guys.
Dafoe was actually originally supposed to appear in Justice League back in 2017, setting up his role in Aquaman. He shot his scenes but they were cut from the theatrical release. They were restored in Zack Snyder’s Justice League, which was released in 2021, but it would mark a trend of Dafoe’s Vulko being cut from the DCEU that Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom would continue.
Why Did Dafoe Not Return for Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom?
With Vulko’s character absent from the trailer for Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom, fans were left wondering if Arthur’s mentor would be making a return for the sequel. Clearing doubts, director James Wan confirmed to Entertainment Weekly that Willem Dafoe would not be a part of the latest film. The director, who also headed the initial Aquaman film, said that scheduling differences that could not be avoided prevented Dafoe from returning to Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom. However, Wan has not let the actor’s absence deter him; instead, he sees a new opportunity within the challenge.
“Willem is not in this one, no. Part of the reason was because his schedule did not work out for us. But what that allowed me to do was expand on Atlanna’s role. Atlanna in this one ultimately becomes Arthur’s advisor. Because Arthur’s not from this world, she helps him better understand the world and the politics of how things work.”
As it turns out, Dafoe was unfortunately busy with another movie and couldn’t make it back for the sequel. Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom was shot all the way back in the summer of 2021 and conflicted with the schedules for Vasilis Katsoupis’s Inside, Wes Anderson’s Aestroid City, and the Yorgos Lanthimos film Poor Things. He plays a very big role in Poor Things and combined with almost three back-to-back shoots, it seemed impossible for Dafoe to fit Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom into his schedule. It’s a shame not to have an important character return, but Wan is able to use this as an opportunity to highlight Atlanna’s character, giving her an expanded role in the sequel. Arthur’s mother now serves as his advisor instead of Vulko.
Ironically, due to the release date delays, Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom and Poor Things were playing in theaters at the same time. While Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom might be doing better at the box office, Poor Things not only did better with critics, but the audiences that have seen it have liked it more, and the movie has now earned 11 Academy Award nominations. While Dafoe did not get nominated for Best Supporting Actor, his co-star Mark Ruffalo did, he gave an incredible performance that is certainly stronger than what he would have had in Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom. So Dafoe clearly made the better career move.
How Does the Movie Address Vulko’s Absence?
Vulko is only briefly alluded to in the film in a moment that is very easy to miss. When Aquaman is addressing the Council of Atlantis, advocating for the sunken city to make its presence known to the surface world, a plague affecting the Atlantians is brought up. These illnesses are a result of pollution in the oceans, and Arthur wanted to collaborate with humans to work on a cure together. While he isn’t mentioned by name, one of the council members makes note that Arthur’s “mentor” died from it. Vulko’s death is then referenced by Arthur’s father, Tom Curry (Tamuera Morrison).
It may be sad to see his character go out like this, but the DCEU is already being reset, and it is unlikely for him to be seen ever again in the new universe. Since the film’s release, rumors have circulated that had Dafoe been able to appear in the film, he would’ve played a major role in it. Although he dies from a virus in the theatrical cut, in the original script, Vulko was going to have a subplot that focused on him trying to contain the virus. Since he couldn’t appear in the movie, the entire plotline, as was his involvement, was cut. Besides the mention at the film’s beginning, the virus story doesn’t come up again and remains unsolved, although Arthur’s collaboration with the surface world at the end sets up the two working together to fix things.
What Happened in Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom?
While the first film focuses on a mission to stop a war alongside a budding romance between Arthur and Mera, the second film is centered on the brothers of Arthur Curry and Orm and is structured more like a buddy comedy. The two are forced to work together if they want to stop Black Manta from reaching the lost kingdom of Necrus, ruled by King Atlan’s younger brother, the tyrannical Kordax.
Perhaps this decision comes as a wise choice given the controversy that Mera actress Amber Heard has attracted over her legal battle with her ex-husband, Johnny Depp. Expressing his thoughts on the narrative of the sequel, Wan said, “I always pitched this to everyone from the get-go. The first Aquaman was Arthur and Mera’s journey. The second movie was always going to be Arthur and Orm.” He went on to add, “So, the first was a romance action-adventure movie, the second one is a bromance action-adventure movie.”
Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom‘s release revealed that Wan has stuck to his word. The film had Arthur and Orm unite, with friendly banter and jibes between them, mostly on the part of Arthur. Black Manta and his Black Trident become Arthur’s and Orm’s primary mission, with the conflict between the two brothers seemingly on the back burner. With this kind of narrative focusing more on the two brothers on a journey outside the kingdom, the lack of Vulko isn’t as noticeable.
It still would’ve been nice to explore the virus plot more and show how it was affecting Atlanians, but that’s not the focus of the film. At its core, Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom is an exploration of brotherhood and how complicated those relationships can be, especially when one of them is a supervillain. The movie is far from perfect, but it’s at its best when it showcases the dynamic between the two, and perhaps taking away from that wouldn’t be the best idea in the first place.
If the Aquaman franchise is to continue in the new DCU, perhaps there’s still room for Dafoe to return. However, given his talents, he’d be better suited with a new, more important character in the universe. Dafoe has stated numerous times how much he wants to play the Joker, so why not do something new with this opportunity?