Slippery When Wet: Diving Into Aquaman

By Chuck Morgue, Dec 17 2018

It is fall 1984, and I am 5 years old. Sitting in front of the television, hearing the trumpets and seeing the bright colors on the screen, the Superman shield pulls back, revealing a mighty team of superheroes. The show is Super Friends: The Legendary Super Powers Show. And there is Superman and Batman. Wonder Woman and Green Lantern. Robin and Black Vulcan. Even Firestorm. But the character that stands out the most to me is the rather underplayed dude in the silly orange and green tights controlling fish with his mind: Aquaman.

And so it began. A lifelong obsession with a superhero culturally seen as the ultimate underdog. A character with a long and rich history of being a punching bag throughout all of geekdom. The guy who “talks to fish,” as friends would say while rolling their eyes.

I was drawn to the character of Aquaman because I related to him. Like me, he was a bit of an outcast. He was almost never taken very seriously. The whole world was against him and even his friends and family didn’t really understand him. He existed in a world he didn’t feel he fit into. Who among us hasn’t felt that way at some point in their lives?

Aquaman first appeared in 1941, in More Fun Comics #73, the brainchild of writer Mort Weisinger and artist Paul Norris. At a time when superheroes were still a new concept, being created and published at an alarming rate even by today‘s standards, Aquaman was a pretty one dimensional character. In the 1950s the character and his backstory were fleshed out mostly under writer Robert Bernstein and artist Ramona Fradon, who created some of my favorite classic Aquaman adventures and supporting characters.

Early in life I became a huge comic book junkie. I fell in love with so many incredible characters. Batman. Conan the Barbarian. Storm. Captain America. Swamp Thing. Silver Surfer. So many amazing heroes from incredible worlds. But Aquaman always managed to outshine them all. Reading about and watching the King of Atlantis fight villains and monsters and just be cooler than anyone gave him credit for.

In the early 1990s, when I was able to become a hardcore comic collector, my collection doubled in size on a yearly basis. Aquaman, under the leadership of writer Peter David, became much more than that uninspired Super Friends character of my youth. He grew out his hair and beard, became a more rough and tumble swashbuckling badass. While this was partly due to that weird 90s curse of over-extremizing characters, whether new or remodeled old, Peter David not only managed to keep Aquaman more or less grounded (albeit in the ocean), and built upon the history and canon of the character.

Years went by. Different writers and artists toyed with the character. His costume evolved. He lost a hand. Attached a harpoon. Got his hand back. Died a few times. Came back as a zombie Black Lantern once. And yet, to the general public, Aquaman seemed doomed to forever be nothing more than a running joke. They never realized he did more than just talk to fish. His story is inspired by the legend of King Arthur. He can swim as fast as the Flash can run. He is nearly as strong as Superman. Hell, he once threw a polar bear at a group of poachers. Despite all this and more, nothing seemed to kill off decades of ambivalence and mockery about him.

Then, something incredible happened. Living man-god and sex machine Khal Drogo, I mean Jason Momoa, accepted the role of Arthur Curry/Aquaman in the DC cinematic universe. First, there was a brief cameo in the disappointing Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Then came the Justice League movie, where Momoa’s Aquaman was able to shine in all his surfer/80s wrestler/rocker glory. He was a smoking hot, sarcastic, total badass. Finally, Aquaman was getting actual respect from not just the general public, but the usually overly fickle geekdom in particular.

But we all know the true test for a fictional character, should they get the opportunity, is their first proper solo adventure movie. I was lucky to score tickets to an early screening of the Aquaman movie a week before it’s wide release.

And now, as a fully grown mostly adult type human with a personal Aquaman collection featuring hundreds of comic books, action figures, plush toys, 80s promo posters, statues, and Poseidon knows what else gathered up over three decades of obsession, I get to share my thoughts on this movie experience I have literally waiting my entire life for. So without spoiling anything, let’s dive in.

From the very beginning, it is obvious this movie wants to make family, and all the problematic issues families deal with, the heart of the story. The love story between Arthur Curry’s parents, while a tad rushed for time, is a wonderful setup for all of the internal character struggles throughout the following couple of hours.

When the story kicks into high gear, the film seems to relish in the treasure chest of influences that are showcased with obvious wonderfulness. The fight sequences, particularly the submarine scene, have a heavy 80s action film vibe, complete with synthesizers and distorted guitar riffs over the orchestral score. Casting Dolph Lundgren in the film seems more than a wink to those over the top 80s action films so many of us grew up with.

Momoa’s Arthur/Aquaman is adequately portrayed as the ultimate antihero. Seemingly completely ambivalent about his own fate, Arthur just wants to help people when he can, and drink and laugh and fight in his downtime. One scene in particular, where a potential bar fight is deflated into something hilariously unexpected was a great character moment.

I waited over three decades for this. I was nervously braced for the impact of disappointment, but I couldn’t be more satisfied with the entire production. The movie strikes a fine balance between drama and humor, apparently learning equally from recent superhero hits like Wonder Woman and Thor: Ragnarok as well as classic adventure fantasy film franchises like Star Wars and Indiana Jones.

Aquaman is an ambitious spectacle that manages to set itself apart from other DC films of the past. The psychedelic bioluminescent-stylized CGI is reminiscent of what one could expect in a Guillarmo del Toro film, which is a wonderful surprise considering Aquaman director James Wan is mostly known for shadowy horror films. Wan was not afraid to take chances, and this film does not shy away from it’s own inherent cheesiness. Superhero stories are naturally pretty ridiculous conceptually, and the best cinematic adaptations embrace that, without talking down to the audience.

What we end up with here is a fresh and fun movie experience that I can still hardly believe even exists. As a kid and teenager, heck as a fully grown adult only just several years ago, I never thought I would get the chance to see my favorite superhero in a major motion picture. I would have been happy with any film adaptation. It could have been as bad as that 1990 Captain America movie and I would have loved. To have a film of this calibre, feels like a true geek blessing.

I only hope that Warner Bros manages to keep their current DC cinematic universe afloat for years to come. I want to see more of Black Manta. I want to see Aquaman lose his hand. I want to see all the cool stories I grew up reading translated into an oceanic-level film franchise that I can continue to get excited about in the same way that Marvel Studios has done for a decade prior.

In the end, Aquaman might not be the best superhero movie ever made. It’s certainly not without it’s faults. Too much story forced into the modest running time, the confusingly underwhelming potrayal of Murk, lack of bigger connection to the other films other than a quick throwaway reference to the Justice League fight against Steppenwolf. But all in all, this is probably the best Aquaman movie one could ask for. All I know for sure is that when I was sitting in that theatre, it was 1984 and I was 5 years old again, hearing the trumpets and keyboards and guitars and seeing the bright colors on the screen, watching the King of Atlantis fight villains and monsters and just be cooler than anyone ever gave him credit for. I couldn’t have been any happier.

Chuck Morgue is a novelist living in southwestern Louisiana. You can find out more by visiting his site at www.nautilhaus.com

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