Alright, so if I’m not happy with the way Aquaman is being treated based on a trailer and the quite safe assumption that the DC Expanded universe is being made by a neverending stream of teapots that suffer from such fundamental failings as objectivism or being Joss Whedon, what would I do differently? Yes, it’s me jumping on a bandwagon of popular analysis form where because I’ve gotten your attention thanks to talking about media that exists, I think I can talk you into listening to my ideas about media that should exist.
I think it’s important to underscore that I’m writing fanfiction here. I mean, okay, it’s also worldbuilding and analysis of implied values of media and stuff, but I’m not presenting it as expertise, I’m presenting you my ideas about what flows from a particular place. It’s my ideas, it’s my stuff, it’s stories I would, I guess, tell, if I had a million-
Wait, movies cost how much to do now?
Anyway the important thing is that this is just fanfiction, and every time you see this particular model of ‘how I’d do it,’ this is absolutely the Internet Critic Boys’ Method of publishing on AO3 and we do it this way because the way people will be mean to us on those websites is too much for my poor heart to handle.
First things first if you want to tell a story about Aquaman you have to decide the kind of story you want to tell, and to do that you have to decide what the Aquaman you’re writing about means or is about. What’s his deal, like, right? When it’s a well-established specific character with a specific power set and worldview and stuff, you can often just slice into the text in the direction you like and go for it. Superman can be an image of dangerous reliance on the other or an avatar for our best intentions, for example, or you can take Batman as a tech dad working his way through his issues, a brooding runaway who still hasn’t apologised to Alfred, or you can even go with treating Batman like he’s doing the one-man infrastructure program Gotham needs.
Thing is, there really isn’t an Aquaman there for anyone to work with and that’s a real problem, because the thing people know about Aquaman is that he talks to fish. As the trailer shows, this makes him quite intimidating if he happens to be in an aquarium surrounded by people who don’t react to massive security problems.
Ugh, I feel so bad hating on this trailer, but not so bad that I’m going to stop.
Anyway, the thing is, when you know what your story wants to be about and that means you’ll know what your story is trying to do, and that will inform everything after that. If you wanted to do a story about a wandering loner, lost from his homeland, trying to escape the reach and influence of the empire, you can do that with Aquaman (though you should be doing it with Hawkgirl) and if you want to do a story about a dude with a bridge to an ancient power that required him to transcend his assumed humanity you can do that with Aquaman (though you should be doing it with Cyborg) and if you want to do a story about a half-breed child born into a society that thinks it understands him but doesn’t and so he has to learn how to connect the ideals of his heritage to the realities of his life, you can do that (though you should have done that with Superman, you utter lemons). Point is, Aquaman has a lot of space so what you pick to work with is mostly a matter of what you think is cool, and what I think is extremely cool is not being a boring retread of a story you failed at telling last time.
Because Aquaman being born of a human and an Atlantean but is truly destined to rule and won’t want to exterminate land-dwellers because he’s like us, and also the king is just blending together both the dim pop-science of Everything Important In The World Is Tied To Humans Specifically, Usually The White Ones, and the equally chodey Kings Are Special, Innit, none of which is in the slightest bit interesting. No, for my money if you wanted to take Aquaman somewhere interesting, you were going to look the golden age of adventure square in the eye and take a swing.
There are the makings right now of an amazing actively anticolonialist movie. You remember Black Panther, Warner Bros? That movie was kind of noteworthy, and part of where it got its sinew from was taking the ideology of Afrofuturism, the What If We Hadn’t Been Robbed For Three Centuries And Change. You could hypothetically have made Aquaman a movie about the way the sea was treated through colonialism.
And we start with a city.
Imagine, if you will, a shimmering city out in the middle of the ocean. Not under it. Over it. Filled with white people, adorned with British and Dutch flags, as they prepare another vessel, load it up, and send it on its way, back home. The question in this ding-dong universe about where the supers have been is pretty well-tread, so use it. Why hasn’t more stuff come up with the oceans? Someone’s keeping it hidden. You can have a superhuman bat costume, you can have a business conspiracy that started in the age of sail.
The idea here is that there’s a city, maybe let’s call it something a classical 1800s era doofus would think is cool, like Poseidonus, with the Greek Myth and the love of The Classicals that implies, and it is an outpost of a corporation that got its start as a secret island colony owned by the British and the Dutch. It’s placed where it is because it’s built literally atop the structure of the actual Atlantean city beneath it. We’ll call it Atlantis because I don’t care.
See, one of my enduring interests in the whole ‘sub ocean culture’ thing is how the difference in atmosphere (literally) changes the relationship to technology, and how that in turn changes the way a society is structured. It’s pretty easy comparatively speaking to farm in the air – if you drop seeds on the ground, they’re going to mostly stay where they are unless wind takes them, but in the ocean there’s a lot more forces that make the ground move around, and it’s less nutrient rich because things are fighting for that nutrition down on the ground. It’s harder to make metal weapons or digital devices or engines, so if you want to have a society that’s capable of that kind of technological purpose, you kinda need to get a bit Flinstones on it. Thankfully, you do have magic in a Superhero setting, which lets you get past some of the more odd questions of ‘okay, but why are the animals behaving this way.’ So you have people drifting out of their homes, and hooking a lift on a drifting whale shark like a sort of mouthy bus, and instead of building skyscrapers (which are super hard in the air) you have these atmosphere-reaching conical spires of like, enormous grown shells and nautiluses and stuff. That stuff is cool! Brightly coloured deep sea animal-tech seapunk nonsense!
That magic is then your next step as to a what is going on in this city. The coloniser city, which used to be pumping its resources back into Merry Old England and uh, Natty Nederlands (I don’t know any Dutch), is now feeding its resources to what has long since become a corporation, which is both a convenient and uncontroversial form of evil, and also super actually evil. Easy target. And it’s doing this through colonial oppression of the entire city below – they’re a big industrial hub of animal-life-tech, but that animal life tech is being used to mine out the resources underneath Atlantis, over time. I mean, we’re talking a major hub in the middle of the Pacific ocean and it’s able to get all sorts of stuff from the bottom of the ocean.
Another thing I want to see is like, more than one people? If you watch the damn trailer to Aquaman you see the culture under the sea is almost as white as it is in the Little Mermaid. Fill it up with Hawaiian and Polynesian and South East Asian actors, the cultures people from around the ring of fire, with the understanding that before the Company City was here, you had a flow of people between Atlantis and the cultures around it, and that stopped with the colonialism. It stopped so long ago there’s nothing but stories left, but the people are still here, and so is their culture.
And I don’t just mean humanoid culture. I mean that the ocean is divided into layers, and things from different layers have really distinctly different biological needs. I wanna see little crab people on the very bottom tiers of the city, and glowy people and maybe an angler fish girl and stuff like that. Not just animals with voices, no – I mean I want to see a modern CGI crew represent An Anglerfish as a kind of merfolk. Make her a major character. Make her a love interest, you cowards.
I mean, c’mon, imagine how many weird boners you could give the world with that task.
So you have animal-tech city under a corporate colony that is kind of okay with its lot in life, because people accept that working for the corporation sucks, but hey, it’s the king’s idea, and the king wouldn’t steer them wrong, right? And they know the king is working for the good of the people, because that’s why all the animal tech works. The king can talk to fish, you see.
Then the king dies of Being Tremendously Old.
The city starts to have a breakdown and you can do some sort of worldbuilding history at this point with the colony city now looking at potentially plunging profits and the loss of their asset or oh no, oh no, the possibility that without them keeping things centralised, this underwater city and its underwater people will get noticed by other countries and oh no.
So here’s our setting: A colonised space under the ocean; a facade city atop it; corporate power controlling it, showing a history of ownership of the ocean and the oppression of the people of the ocean. You have a king who was part of the control mechanism, a puppet, and a biological reason the king was important to the state rather than a divine right. Cue the search for a replacement, while the colonisers consider whether or not to Cut Their Losses and flatten Atlantis for an automation process.
And then you get Jason Momoa involved, have a search party find him, explain to him where his powers came from, do your hero’s journey refusal of the call bumph, you can do it, I can’t do it, you can do it, I can’t do it, you can do it, oh my god I can do it, and you make the back end of your movie a solid half hour of Jason Momoa kicking all kinds of ass with sharks in a coastal city, responding to a dreadful injustice because it’s an injustice, not because it’s his stuff or Randian objectivism.
And this means that you want your Aquaman to be the kind of person who maybe is a little stubborn and retaliatory? Like maybe he wasn’t interested, until someone told him he couldn’t, then he decided he could, just to show them? like maybe he sees the way he can use his gift of shark whispering to help a city as part of its infrastructure, and the corporation might try to tempt him to become the next puppet king? You have the direct contrast of a previous righteous monarch becoming a puppet and the way that imposing all the power of a state on one person makes the nation fail if that person fails, and you can have the big Black Panther moment at the end of Hey, World, We Exist.
But one last thing, before – god this has gotten long, but – one last thing. This is so important to me and I want to frame this as a sort of general appeal:
Can you please stop making movies that would be embarassed to mention themselves?
This guy’s going to star in and be the central character of Aquaman. Look at that word and ask yourself if the grumbly-voiced burly fratboy archetype you’ve picked for Mamoa is going to say that name. Is he ever going to introduce himself like that? Or, and this is what I predict, is someone else going to call him Aquaman and he’s going to cringe at the very mention of it?
It’s just not like, the actual voice of this whole type of movie?
“Who are you?”
Like, you can’t see it happening, can you?
Batman claims his name because it’s a symbol. Superman claims his name because there really isn’t anything you can do to hurt that.
Aquaman is a name that’s out of time. I’m not going to pretend it’s not. You can absolutely have a character who proudly swings that monicker around but these days it’s probably an extremely millenial irony or an utterly unflinching charming dork. Jason Momoa is not an unflinching charming dork. Jason Momoa is a man who even when he’s being dorky, is doing so from the towering height of being big enough and muscular enough to eat all your bones. It’s a different kind of presence, is what I’m saying. It’s threat.
If in our context of an anticolonialist superhero movie with Atlantis as a disparate cultural state that draws on the people and cultures of the ocean, we have this character, and this name, and this name is something he needs some reason to say, and he needs some reason to accept it.
The easy way to do it is to have some dingaling people in the crowd say ‘oh it’s Aquaman’ and for him to roll his eyes and huff and sure, that’s fine, I guess, if you like ideas that suck, but you could reach for a bar a little higher than Superhero Movie That Doesn’t Want To Be Here, I’d suggest instead have the title belong to the oppressors.
Specifically, have the oppressors have this notion of an Aquaman, have them make him up as a figure of mockery. It’s not an uncommon thing for colonisers to do – to create an icon that represents the oppressed, then assert power over that icon. It’s happened in mythology a lot. Have them straight up create this parody of a character that’s meant to represent the Atlanteans, and then have them talk about how he submitted himselves to them, how they own the Atlanteans in thrall now, because they have his golden-orange armour. The first king who made the deal that created the royal lineage, the Aquaman of Atlantis, who rules wisely and recognises their place.
Then have Jason Momoa take this legend, this icon someone else built, and turn it into something terrifying. Turn up, break into their palace, take the armour, stomp the baddies, prepare for the retaliation! You’ve got your basic moment, right? Suddenly “I’m Aquaman” becomes terrifying because he’s picking up their threat, he’s using their myth against them.
Look, the name Aquaman has to be important. It has to be or you’d just call this movie Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea With Sick Abs, or something else. The name is the thing the whole movie is about, because the name is the person and if that’s the case then have the name be something the character might actually wear and say and not be weird about.
… Did I seriously get through all that without talking about how you can use Lovecraftian mythos and sea monster stuff to make Atlantis the incarnation of what terrified Howard, like a society that was diverse, inteconnected, respectful, feminist and happy? Well, guess there just isn’t the room.
There’s me fanficcy idea. It’s not a perfect one. It’s not even a great one. But I daresay it’s something you can do with Underwater City with A Protagonist Of Colour that isn’t just Man of Steel again, and I had fun writing it.