Aquaman: From ‘Joke’ to ‘Badass’

Despite being created in 1941, Aquaman has only just this month received his own solo live-action film. Previously seen in Batman v Superman and Justice League, the character’s latest cinematic outing sees Jason Momoa play Arthur Curry, a man born of both the land and the fabled Atlantis – who must venture to the undersea kingdom for the first time to confront his half-brother, King Orm, and take back the throne that is his birthright.

Momoa’s Aquaman is a far cry from his original depiction, both in terms of looks and characterisation. In previous appearances, he has been described as a ‘dudebro’, known for his “My Man!”s, hard drinking and his bulky tattooed physique.

But the question is, how did Aquaman turn from this…

to this…?

Although hardcore DC fans may argue otherwise, to many, Aquaman has long been viewed as a bit of a joke. Despite being plenty strong, and more durable than most of his peers, Aquaman’s most famous power has always been his ability to ‘talk to fish’, so much so that Ben Affleck’s Bruce Wayne even gets a joke in about it in Justice League.

Originally, this power meant Aquaman could speak to sea life in their own language and led to him having supporting characters like the music-loving octopus, Topo, who acted as a sidekick of sorts for the sea-faring hero. Other sidekicks included Aqualad and Aquagirl, two characters who filled out the worrying sidekick trope of being kids in questionable clothing – something that was hardly beneficial to the King of the Sea’s rep.

Another factor holding Aquaman back was his bright costume and fair looks. Compared to the likes of Batman, Aquaman never looked like much of a threat, despite the fact he was infinitely stronger than the Dark Knight. On top of that, his adventures were often quite whimsical, touting outlandish situations and a rather forgettable rogues gallery, amongst whom was his utterly ridiculous looking arch-nemesis Black Manta (as seen in the new movie in a surprisingly comic book accurate costume).

But as the years went by, DC made several attempts to make Aquaman a more serious character, the nineties being their most obvious attempt.

In this regard, the nineties were not unlike Aquaman’s angsty teenage years. In a decade where Superman was killed off and Batman had his spine broken, Aquaman also would not escape unscathed. It was in this time that Aquaman finally ditched his bright orange costume and stepped away from his clean-cut look, embracing a fuller mane of hair and a bushy beard that would, in turn, no doubt inspire Jason Momoa’s hiring years later. He became more brooding and even lost a hand. His powers were heightened to include control of the oceans themselves, and in place of his lost hand, he began using a series of mechanical appendages and harpoons. It was quite the transformation. 

But just like those embarrassing old photos of your youth that keep cropping up, Aquaman still could not escape his old image that had been immortalised in the eyes of non-comic book readers in the campy Super Friends cartoon, as evidenced by the various jokes at his expense on shows like Robot Chicken:

In fact, Aquaman didn’t truly reach his turning point until this very decade.

In 2011, DC reset their universe following their Flashpoint event. In this new universe, only five years had passed since the appearance of superheroes, and thus the various writers involved had a fresh slate on which they could reimagine the various characters. It was during this time that writer Geoff Johns (who also helped write the story for the movie) started to cement Aquaman as a more serious presence.

In the pages of Aquaman’s new comic book, Johns tackled Aquaman’s failings head-on, with side-characters making jokes at Aquaman’s expense, and the character explaining how his powers work, what his relationship with sea life was, and gave him several badass moments that would distract from the fact that he was still wearing that bright, garish costume. It was as part of this run that Aquaman was cemented as a serious hero despite all of the ridiculous choices that had proliferated his now-lengthy publication history. He shrugged off bullets to the face, stood up to the entire Justice League and highlighted that being able to ‘talk to fish’ (or influence their thoughts, as his revised powers now suggested) is actually a pretty awesome ability. Because as the ruler of the seas, Aquaman is king of 70% of the planet, and for every goofy octopus playing the bongos, there’s a massive sea monster that could wipe out the United States; all Aquaman’s to command.

It was from this comic book run that the new movie took a lot of inspiration. Like the comic, the film mixed the gruff, brooding personality that has been adopted by the character from the nineties onwards, with the bright and colourful characters, costumes and locations that have been prevalent in Aquaman comics since the forties. It also makes strong use of his ‘fish-talking’ powers and highlights how they make him unique.

Like Johns’ comic book run, the film leans into the lunacy of Aquaman’s history, and shows audiences that yes, Aquaman is ridiculous – but he’ll still kick your ass.  

Aquaman is in cinemas now.