Aquaman. Blonde and clean-cut. He’s one of the best-known comic characters in the world, but for years “DC” only stood for “Dorky Chump” when it came to the king of the ocean. These days, Aquaman is pretty cool again, thanks to none other than Khal Drogo stepping into his scalemail. But DC has been working hard for years to years to put this genuinely badass character back into the spotlight.
Let’s establish why Aquaman is cool, and what makes him stand out from the rest of the Justice League. He’s persisted for decades with the same name and same basic character design (aside from some Edgelord 90’s Harpoon Hand stuff). There has to be something to him, right?
Cool as Ice
His exact origin varies over the years. At one point he was just a human with training and access to Atlantean secrets. More frequently, though, Aquaman is Arthur Curry, the son of a human father named Tom Curry and an Atlantean noblewoman named Atlanna.
Aquaman can breath indefinitely underwater and possesses superhuman strength and physical endurance that allows him to survive in the ocean’s greatest depths. He can resist gunfire and heavy attacks from superpowered beings. His strength outperforms that of an average Atlantean, which are super-strong by human standards, and he can leap far enough that it might as well be flight. He can swim well over 6,000 miles per hour. He can also see in near-total darkness and has hearing that grants him sonar.
And yes, he can talk to fish, though that’s been tweaked in recent years to be less like having a conversation and more like sending basic commands to undersea creatures.
Finally, like Wonder Woman, Aquaman has his own powerful artifact in the form of his trident. It too has taken different forms over the years. In some versions it can change forms, or has the power to manipulate water, fire energy bolts, and amplify strength. These days, it’s powerful enough to allow Aquaman to be the only Leaguer who could make Darkseid bleed his own blood.
With a power set and skill roster this top-notch, why did Aquaman get such a bad rep?
Aquaman: Watered Down
A lot of the blame lies with Superfriends, which ran through the 1970s and early 1980s. The show ran for over a decade, and in that time Aquaman was largely relegated to a support role.
In the Superfriends show, Aquaman had two big features. The first is that he could talk to fish. In the abstract, this is a really cool power. Summoning a huge shark to attack, or circling a bunch of humpback whales to protect someone, covering a vessel in octopodes – and those are just the start. (Meanwhile, Batman is over there with his bat-shaped throwing stars. But we all agree that Batman is cool, right? So what gives?)
Talking to fish is the most Silver Age, Hanna-Barbera-ass power I can imagine. Of all the powers I can dream up amongst the main JLA members, only Green Lantern’s power has the inherent ability to be more cartoonish.
“What’s that, tiny fish? Aquaboy is stuck in a well??”
The H-B time period was also when Aquaman got his silliest weakness. During that time, every hero had to have One Critical Weakness. Superman had a radioactive space rock, and that was pretty cool. It only gets sillier from there, though. The Green Lantern is weak to yellow. The Flash to extreme cold. And Aquaman? He’s the thirstiest dude in all of the DC universes. That is to say, he gets dehydrated easily and can’t be away from the ocean for more than an hour (or 24 hours, depending on when we’re talking).
That weakness’s appearance in Superfriends made it all but canonical for the character in the cultural consciousness, but limited the character severely enough that it was tough to write him into bigger DC stories, and so his exposure got considerably limited.
And the truth is, until the Justice League movie and the upcoming Aquaman film, Mr. Curry has had virtually no opportunities to rehabilitate his image. When we look at Batman and Superman, we can count multiple animated and live-action movies and series for each character that have made them cool to different audiences. Even Wonder Woman had her 1970s TV show which played things mostly straight despite the absurdity. (Supergirl’s attempt at movie success has been all but forgotten by time and comic-book fans.)
Little about Aquaman as we’ve known him has been iconic. He doesn’t have a tragic backstory like Bruce, nor an honest good boy upbringing like Superman. He’s a guy who has special powers, and then he gets to be king. Nothing about his story sticks with us. Even if you like Orm, Black Manta, and other Aquaman-specific villains, he doesn’t even have a rogue’s gallery to speak of. Superman and Batman both have villains as legendary as they are. The Flash has seen a resurgence thanks to the CW television show, and people with only casual interest have strong feelings about characters like Captain Cold and the Reverse Flash.
So we have this character that, honestly, has really cool powers. He has a character design that doesn’t look like anyone else in the DC main cast. But his most iconic moment is Superfriends. He’s a one-trick pony. DC and Hanna-Barbera basically doomed the poor guy.
So how did he become cool?
That’s a harder question. It’s the result of years of hard work and some lucky strikes.
One key moment, weirdly, isn’t actually canonical to the main character, and doesn’t even happen in an Aquaman comic. I’m talking about Flashpoint. In this story, Flash goes back in time to undo his mother’s murder, and it sets off a whole chain of events, helped along by the Reverse Flash, that alters the origin stories and histories of everyone in the DC universe.
In the Flashpoint story, Aquaman is king of Atlantis at a time when the Atlantean nation is about to go to war with the Amazons of Themyscira, led by Diana, a.k.a Wonder Woman. In this story, Aquaman leads the entire Atlantean army, and the war between the two nations threatens to destroy the earth, such is its destructive potential. Between Aquaman’s inherent powers and the power he commands as a king, there’s no doubt that he’s scary in a way few other heroes could equal, should he dip off the deep end of the pool.
Another change that seemed lame at first ultimately helped open the door for a cooler Aquaman. Part of Aquaman’s problem is he’s even more clean-cut than Superman. In the 90s, the time of Ultimate Edginess, we saw Aquaman get a redesign that dropped the orange shirt and replaced it with some half-plate armor, and saw him grow out his hair. He went from clean-cut American dude to Actually Freaking Poseidon. And then, those silly creators had piranhas eat his hand off so they could replace it with a harpoon. The hair was a great move, the Captain Harpoon hand was not. His traditional look was replaced with something Classical, in the sense of Greco-Roman mythology.
But that opened the door for the Aquaman we’re about to see in theaters.
As much as I’m conflicted about a lot of Zack Snyder’s decisions with the DC movies, casting Jason Momoa was an absolutely masterful move.
When matched up against that 90s version of Aquaman, Momoa syncs up just about perfectly. Put him underwater and he looks like a Greek god. He’s played Khal Drogo and Conan of Cimmeria. He’s a big dork in interviews, but when on a set he turns into a living Boris Vallejo painting.
Thanks to his time on Game of Thrones, Jason Momoa has become a cultural force of his own. He’s an actor that is admired equally for his looks, his physique, and for his personality and attitude. I don’t think – anecdotally speaking – that I know anyone who doesn’t like Jason Momoa.
That puts him in a perfect place to give Aquaman something he hasn’t had since Superfriends: an Iconic Moment. Superfriends is old enough that most moviegoers don’t really remember it at this point. It went off the air over 30 years ago. What people remember is the side effect – the damaged rep that turned into countless jokes on Adult Swim and late-night shows over the years.
And so this movie, just a couple weeks away, has the opportunity to give Aquaman not just a fresh origin story, but a new cultural origin story.