Thanks to Entourage and his octopus sidekick, Aquaman has long been a superhero laughing stock. Will James Wan's movie end the sniggering?
Most people have never heard of the DC Comics hero Aquaman, who is set to appear in a 2018 film that Fast & Furious 7’s James Wan has just signed up to direct. Most of those who have heard of the Atlantis-born fighter know him from the fictional movie-within-the-TV-show Entourage, where Aquaman was a huge hit for Adrian Grenier’s wannabe A-lister Vinnie Chase and director James Cameron (playing himself). But will Wan’s film be as big a success?
So far, the signs are promising. Cameron may have directed the two highest-grossing films of all time, Avatar and Titanic, but this week Wan’s Furious 7 is set to overtake Avengers and take third place just behind him.
The 38-year-old Australian writer-director is already established as an original voice in horror, creating the low-budget hit franchises The Conjuring, Insidious and Saw, and his car-crazed latest showed beyond doubt that Wan can handle action on the largest possible scale. He will now finalise the Aquaman script with Kurt Johnstad, who adapted both 300 films and essentially won this job in a face-off against a rival screenplay by Gangster Squad’s Will Beall.
Their big challenge is that Aquaman, and his green-and-orange fish-scale outfit and his army of seamen, has become a laughing stock since his 1941 debut, with Big Bang Theory characters and even other superheroes mocking the watery limits of his powers on the comic-book page.
He never had great supporting characters – sidekicks included the unimaginatively named Aqualad and Aquagirl, as well as an octopus called Topo – and even his rogue’s gallery included a water-breathing eagle, a sorcerer with seaweed hair and the commander of a Nazi warship that was disguised as an iceberg.
It seemed impossible that Aquaman’s reputation could ever be salvaged, and combined with the perennial difficulties of shooting on or underwater, the prospect of an Aquaman film seemed remote, despite several attempts in the early 2000s.
But he was still a founder member of the Justice League, DC’s equivalent of the Avengers (it actually pre-dates Marvel’s team) and the super-team their films are now building towards, so both comics and attempted screen adaptations have sought to restore his cool factor.
By the Nineties, he had become a more serious, brooding figure. Uneasy king of the underwater civilisation of Atlantis, he was wary of surface-dwellers, perhaps understandably given our habit of piping sewage onto his kingdom, and often beset by plots against his throne. As with most comic-book characters, his superpowers varied as writers tried to make him formidable but not ridiculous.
The most consistent include the ability to breathe underwater, super-strength and toughness to survive the pressures of the deeps and possession of a magic trident that can, in some stories, control the weather and transform living things.
He’s said to swim faster than Superman, and can pierce the Kryptonian’s skin with that trident. Originally he could also communicate telepathically with fish, but that’s been downplayed in recent years because, well, fish don’t have that much in the way of brain. He can, however, compel marine life to do his bidding.
Aquaman also faced more drama and tragedy on the page. He had a loving but troubled relationship with his usually-wife (everything changes in comics) Mera, who at one point was driven mad and became a formidable enemy. And he lost a hand when madman Charybdis forced it into a pool full of piranhas, after stealing Aquaman’s ability to control the fish.
He replaced it first with a harpoon, then a golden, gadget-filled prosthetic and then a mystical water hand courtesy of the Lady In The Lake – think King Arthur – which allowed him to dehydrate anything he touched with it and shoot jets of water. Oh, and he used the bones of his severed hand in a magical ritual, before being killed and resurrected, with hand finally intact again.
Zack Snyder, who will oversee Aquaman’s first appearance in 2016’s Batman V. Superman: Dawn Of Justice, is a fan. “Aquaman has some cool abilities,” he told Detroit radio station The Ticket before the character’s casting was even announced. “The cool thing with Aquaman is he’s Triton, so you have to realise that could cut the flesh of Superman if they came in contact. That’s a thing that’s in the canon. He has the potential to be badass.”
Unsurprisingly given that endorsement, Aquaman’s new big-screen incarnation already looks significantly tougher than any we’ve seen before. Game Of Thrones’ muscly Jason Momoa has already been cast, to appear opposite Henry Cavill’s Superman and Ben Affleck’s Batman as they gather the other heroes who will go on to form the Justice League. After his 2016 debut, Aquaman will appear in the first Justice League film, due in November 2017, before his solo outing in July, 2018.
The first, glowering look at Momoa’s take on the character, all dreadlocks and pecs and tattoos, confirms that the sometimes risible-looking Aquaman of the comics and cartoons is gone for good. This take is likely to play up Aquaman’s environmentalist credentials as the protector of his people and the ocean itself from human interference as well as from the plots of evil supervillains.
His new look seems inspired by the mid-Nineties incarnation, with that gladiator’s manica on one shoulder and the long hair, but the tattoos are more drawn from the star’s background than the comic-book’s history. Momoa is of native Hawaiian descent, and has drawn parallels between that island culture and Aquaman’s beliefs.
Those markings on Aquaman’s left forearm shield appear to be modelled on Momoa’s own tattoo in the same location, a pattern of shark’s teeth that indicates guidance, ferocity and power in Polynesian and Hawaiian tradition. The spear-like patterns on his shoulder also stand for courage and battle strength.
The overall message of all the tattoos is that this is a formidable man with a position of great responsibility to his people, not some dilettante swimming about without porpoise. Sorry, purpose.
With a (presumably) gritty, action-heavy script from 300’s Johnstad and the recruitment of a director as successful as Wan, studio Warner Bros are taking the character as seriously as any fan could wish. Will this match James Cameron’s fictional, record-breaking success? So far, it’s going swimmingly.