Aquaman has spent decades trying to shed his underdog status. He may have lasted through 77 years of DC Comics’ publication history, but that’s been time spent fighting to be accepted into the mainstream, to gain the love and recognition showered over Superman and Wonder Woman, and, most importantly, to no longer always be the butt of the joke.
With his garish orange and green attire, bleached blonde hair, and friendly relationship with the sea critters, Aquaman has always come off as a bit of a dork. Haunted by the memories of his years on the 1970s American animated series Super Friends, when his role saw him contribute nothing beyond an ability to ride fish around like jet skis, he’s become an internet meme and the subject of endless parodies, from Entourage to Family Guy.
But, in 2018, Aquaman gets to be plastered all over New York City’s Times Square. Billboards for the film have dominated the tourist hotspot ahead of its release, with Jason Momoa placed centre stage as the trident-wielding hero. The actor is the complete opposite of the Aquaman we know. This Aquaman is cool. A household name ever since his role as Khal Drogo on Game of Thrones, Momoa is all muscles and raw charisma. He may still be a friend to the fishes, but this Aquaman has had to undergo a process of complete reinvention.
As Momoa tells me, it was director Zack Snyder, who first introduced the cinematic Aquaman in 2016’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, who was keen to build the character “from the ground up”. He continues: “He hired me for a certain reason, he really supported the attributes that I had personally. He supported the idea of me playing certain things like that.”
The character was solidified when he featured alongside DC’s full roster of heroes in last year’s Justice League: he was brash, reluctant to save the day, and knew how to land a punch. It’s an approach now upheld in his first solo film, directed by The Conjuring‘s James Wan, allowing Momoa to play the character “the way I kind of signed on and wanted to do”.
The box office will inevitably decide whether Aquaman has truly secured widespread appeal, but the character’s never known the easy road to success. Although he made his debut in 1941, it wasn’t until 1960 that he first appeared on the cover of a comic book. It took two more years for him to land his first solo series. His backstory has constantly shifted in an attempt to grant him greater magnitude.
At first, he was the son of an explorer who discovered a city at the bottom of the ocean, choosing to live there and raise his child in the ancient ways. In the 1960s, he was the son of a lighthouse keeper and an outcast of Atlantis, named Atlanna. He had his string of unintimidating sidekicks during this period, too, including the Robin-like Aqualad, a walrus named Tusky, and an Octopus named Topo. The latter, specifically, got the position after a contest between sea creatures, organised by Aquaman after he had become inspired by the trusting relationship between the Canadian Mountie and his horse.
However, the 1970s brought one of the darkest chapters in the character’s history, after his son (suitably named Aquababy) was murdered by his enemies and he abandoned his wife Mera to her grief. The marriage soon collapsed and the character shifted into the brooding hero mode.
By the 1980s, Aquaman had become royalty: Atlanna was now the Queen of Atlantis, his father was the wizard Atlan, and he was raised by dolphins after being abandoned as a child, his blonde hair considered a curse in Atlantean society. The 1990s saw an even more dramatic bid for Aquaman’s legitimacy as a serious hero – he was given a harpoon for a hand, after his real one was either eaten by a swarm of piranhas or cut off by his nemesis Black Manta. He also had long hair and a beard, in order to complete the pirate look, and abandoned his orange shirt for grey and green armour.
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Yet, there was nothing that could override the image of Aquaman as the walking punchline; when the entire DC universe was rebooted in 2011, the struggle was finally acknowledged, and the character became preoccupied with simply trying to convince those around him – from criminals, cops, to other heroes – that he deserved some respect.
His transition from page to screen hasn’t been particularly smooth, either. He appeared as a marine biology major on WB’s Smallville in 2005, which followed a teenage Superman. The character was popular enough that the show’s creators attempted a spin-off, but it failed to be picked up.
In 2003, producers Alan and Peter Riche, best known for comedies such as Tomcats and Starsky & Hutch, wanted to embrace the character’s reputation and create a screwball romp for the character. A more serious version was pitched by Mad Max director George Miller, as part of his failed Justice League project, which would have starred Armie Hammer as Batman and Santiago Cabrera as Aquaman. A Writers Guild strike shut production down, then Warner Bros lost interest after the success of 2008’s The Dark Knight. Leonardo DiCaprio’s Appian Way production company even briefly toyed with the idea of an Aquaman movie.
Aquaman’s first cinematic outings, Batman v Superman and Justice League, failed to land either critical or financial success, but audiences were charmed by the character, and the reviews for his solo film have been largely positive. Aquaman has lost his underdog status by, oddly enough, embracing it in a new way.
His character has been called both an “outsider” and an “outlaw” by his creators, while a heavy thematic emphasis has been placed on the conflict between his human and Atlantean parentage, and how he can feel alienated from both. He’s a loner on land, often nursing a beer in the corner of the smallest, most remote pub you can find; under the sea, he’s a man unwilling to take his rightful place on the throne of Atlantis. This may all mark quite the departure from his comic book history, but being the underdog has its advantages here – there’s far less at stake.
As Momoa puts it: “It’s nice not being the seventh Batman. It’s nice to be the first one. And good luck being the next one.”
Aquaman is out in UK cinemas now
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