“Superfriends” was a 1973 cartoon series chronicling the adventures of well known DC Comics characters like Batman, Superman, Wonder-Woman, and Aquaman. Think “Teen Titans Go!,” but with the Justice League and a lack of any semblance of charm. Of all the characters featured in the show, none of them took as hard of a hit as Arthur Curry. Decades after “Superfriends” went off the air, Aquaman was regarded as the Mermaid Man like joke that show represented. This led to him being rather unjustly mocked in popular culture as shows like Robot Chicken and Family Guy skewered him. Portraying him as a useless lout, often getting his neck stuck in debris left in the ocean or just being generally useless. It was the norm to rip the character until Jason Momoa was cast to play him a few years back.
It was at that point that he stopped being known as the guy who talked to fish and became Aquabro, basically who we all like to imagine Jason Momoa is in his downtime. And you know what? That’s fine. Aquabro was one of the only redeeming aspects of Justice League. A success that transitioned into the biggest hit at the box office DC has had since The Dark Knight Rises. “Aquaman” was a gleefully nerdy and over the top joyride in the vein of 80’s adventure movies. But as charming as Momoa is in his portrayal of the King of the Seven Seas, he wasn’t the Arthur Curry I know and love. Aquaman being cool has been a hill I’ve been more than happy to die on for a few years now. Arthur Curry is a badass, likeable character with just as much cool history as his more well respected counterparts.
(Light spoilers for “Aquaman” follow)
One of the particularly glaring things I’ve found in the criticisms toward Aquaman is that he has useless powers. “Huh huh, he talks to fish, huh huh”, say the haters, having just seen that Robot Chicken rerun from 2007. To that I say this. Really? Like, how is being able to control sea life a lame power? People know sharks are a thing right? Whales, swordfish, barracudas, giant squids, etc. This is put to good use in the climax of the movie, when he summons an army of sea life to help him defeat his half-brother. He also put this power to good use in the legendary Blackest Night event comic. At the time, Arthur undead and under the control of the Black Lantern Corps (don’t ask, comics are weird). While generally wreaking havoc on the rest of DCU, he at one point resurrected a cadre of zombie sharks to do his bidding. Yes, you heard that right. ZOMBIE. SHARKS. In terms of raw strength he packs a whole damn lot of punch too, as he has proven more than capable of going toe to toe with heavy hitters like Superman or Wonder Woman. Throw in some masterful hand to hand combat skills and one of the most badass weapons in all of comics in the form of his trident, and you’ve got quite the formidable force in Aquaman. Oh yeah, there is that whole thing where he can breathe underwater and swim like a torpedo. That’s cool too.
Disregarding all that cheesy nonsense from the 60’s and 70’s, Aquaman also has a pretty solid history of good comics bearing his name. Peter David gave Arthur a long beard replaced one of his hands with a hook in his legendary run in the 90’s; a grittier take on the character that was a fairly obvious inspiration for Momoa’s version some 20ish years later. My personal favorite Aquaman story was helmed by Geoff Johns. Being one of the few characters that came out of DC’s Comics New 52 reboot in a better position than he was before, Johns’ take on the character saw a return to the status quo that tweaked a few things in all the right places. Namely, Arthur was back (He had been turned into a Davey Jones-esque monster for awhile, then the whole zombie bit. Again, comics are weird) and in a relationship with longtime love interest Mera in their attempt to live relatively normal lives on the surface. However, as it always has, Atlantis quickly rears its head back into his life.
It was a large inspiration for the plot of the film. This comic book run also took a sort of Meta look at the character, with his status as “nobody’s favorite superhero” often thrown in his face by an ungrateful public. By the end of the run, Arthur proves just how wrong that notion is in one of the most fun and action packed runs DC’s put out in the last decade.
Above all else, at least in recent iterations, Arthur Curry is a man on the run from his destiny. He views Atlantis and its people as a warlike and arrogant group that he wants no part of. It’s absolutely incompatible with the humble and good natured Arthur, who wants nothing more than to live a quiet(ish) life with Mera on the surface world. And as expected, Atlantis, as well as a position of leadership. The film does a good job of highlighting this, but it’s characterization that’s been around for a while. What the film loses in Jason Momoa’s bombastic performance are the more nuanced aspects of Arthur’s personality. Where Momoa’s version would be seen sitting at a bar laughing and knocking back drinks, the man from the comics would be quietly sitting in the corner hiding from any onlookers. He’s a reserved, decent man with a weariness about him that just doesn’t come through in the film’s depiction.
While the Aquaman movie is a helluva fun time, there’s a whole lot more potential to be mined from the stories and character himself as depicted in the comics it’s based on. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with “Aquabro”, he’s lacking the sense of depth that’s been established in the comics. So the notion that it took Jason Momoa to make him cool is flat out wrong. Aquaman has been an absolute badass with a set of awesome and visually distinctive stories for a very long time.