Friday, December 28, 2018

Themes and Character Arcs in AQUAMAN

This episode of the Justice League Universe podcast focuses on the themes and character development of Aquaman, directed by James Wan and written by David Johnson-McGoldrick and Will Beall.

  • Themes in Aquaman
  • Character development
  • Connections to other DCEU Films
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Contributors: @ottensam @raveryn @derbykid @wondersyd
Bonus Content and forthcoming Man of Steel analysis:

<Transcript below>

Welcome, fans of the Justice League Universe. My name is Sam. This podcast delves deep into the DC Films from Warner Brothers studios. We have fully analyzed the masterpiece that is Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and it was through an appreciation of that movie that we came together as a podcast team -- myself, Alessandro Maniscalco, Rebecca Johnson, Sydney, and Nick Begovich. You can find us all on Twitter -- @ottensam, @raveryn, @derbykid, @wondersyd, and @JLUPodN -- and you can follow the show at @JLUPodcast. Since BvS, we have also completed a scene-by-scene breakdown of Suicide Squad as well as Wonder Woman. We are still in the midst of our Justice League analysis and we are also circling back to cover Man of Steel, but in this episode, we are going to take our first in-depth look at Aquaman, directed by James Wan from a story by James Wan, Geoff Johns, and Will Beall, and a screenplay by David Johnson-McGoldrick and Will Beall.

So in this episode, we are going to dive into Aquaman by looking across the film for themes, for character development, and for connections to prior films in the Justice League Universe, aka the DCEU.

And if you haven’t listened to our podcast before, our style is to try to break away from the fan wars and the online drama that can often surround superhero movies. Instead, we like to take a close work at the creative efforts and artistic substance of these films. We enjoy tracing thematic threads throughout the stories and we like to break down, as best we can, the directing choices, the cinematography, and the production design in terms of how they contribute to deeper meanings in film. Sometimes, there is a lot of rich content along these lines, like in the aforementioned Batman v Superman, and sometimes this in-depth analysis reveals possible incoherence in the meanings being construed, like in Suicide Squad, but in either case, it can be a very rewarding way to process these movies and spend time with the characters.


So let’s get started with our initial analysis of Aquaman. We like to begin with broader themes -- what messages are embedded in the story or brought to life by the characters? Before we actually saw the movie, we already had some guesses about potential themes, based on knowledge of the characters, content from the trailers, and also interviews with the actors and director. Here was where our attention was focused as went into the movie, and we talked about these ideas in our Aquaman Preparations episode. I’m just going to run through them quickly, because these were from before we actually saw the movie.

       Being of two worlds

       Finding acceptance

       Relationships with parents

       Destiny or choice as a path to leadership

       Kings versus heroes

Now, these were really just topics, not theses. But now that we’ve seen the movie, we can try to draw some more meaning out of them. Here are the themes that are on our mind thus far, and of course we withhold the right to modify and add to this list as our analysis continues:

For the topic of being of two worlds, we have the following theme - It is false to separate the world into two parts when we are actually all here together. We’ll say more about this in a moment.

Next, on the idea of Arthur finding acceptance, it was definitely a part of the context of his character, but upon first viewing it doesn’t seem to be an essential theme of the movie. He was not, for example, striving to be socially accepted by the Atlantean population, nor was he really trying to make inroads more thoroughly with the surface dwellers. He did win over some public acceptance, but it was because of his arrival into battle with Atlan’s trident -- not because of some emotional acceptance from the people. He also didn’t really come to accept or forgive the Atlanteans for punishing his mother. Sure, she turned out to still be alive, but that doesn’t change the fact that they sent her into the trench to die. So the film wasn’t really about Arthur coming to accept Atlantis, nor them accepting him, because they don’t really know him yet, except Vulko and Mera. But Arthur does at least find a clear role to play in Atlantis as their new leader, along with Mera and Atlanna, so in that sense, he can go from a sort of aimless roamer to a king. We’ll talk about that more in the character section later.

Next up, the idea of parents is certainly a big part of this movie. We weren’t sure what the thematic undertones were going to be with regard to the parents, but upon our initial viewings, we are sensing a theme that has to do with feeling anger at the loss of a parent. In particular, the word mercy clearly became a keyword in this film and it was often tied to parents. The overarching theme that we took away can be phrased like this -- we should show mercy to others, even more than we have perhaps received ourselves. Let’s trace it through the film quickly.

       At the beginning -- Atlantis does not show mercy to Atlanna, and because she knows this, she has to leave her family on shore. Then, Arthur does not show mercy to David Kane’s father, Jesse Kane. This is somewhat understandable because the Kanes were guilty of killing innocent people and they tried to kill Arthur. David says, “You can’t leave him like this.” And Arthur tells them to (quote) “ask the sea for mercy.”  So Arthur is choosing not to show mercy, and although Arthur didn’t directly kill Jesse Kane, he could’ve saved him and didn’t. In terms of the balance of mercy, Kane didn’t show mercy to the submarine crew, so Arthur applied the same amount of mercy back to him and left him to die.

       Next, Mera comes and asks Arthur to help her prevent war. Arthur pledges to Mera that if Atlantis rises and attacks the surface world, Arthur will fight to protect the land. He’ll show them (quote) “the same mercy they showed my mother.” So again, Arthur is operating under a model of equal exchange of mercy. And the writers explicitly put the word “mercy” into the dialogue. However, even though Arthur is showing a lack of mercy toward Atlantis, what does Mera do a few minutes later? She shows mercy by saving Tom Curry. In showing this mercy – which was more mercy than Arthur was offering – Mera gained allies.

       Then, in Act 2, Black Manta comes to Italy, seeking vengeance, and says he’ll show Arthur the same mercy Arthur showed his father. So at this point in the film, the good guy and the bad guy are actually on the same moral page -- they’re both just returning the amount of mercy that they’ve received. But of course, a world where neither side is increasing the amount of mercy will just entail more and more pain and sorrow. So a lesson needs to be learned.

       Arthur learns this exact lesson, as expressed on the boat with Mera. He realizes that by failing to show mercy, he is just causing more pain and creating new enemies. That leads us to the end where the theme is concluded.

       In the final battle with Orm, Orm explicitly uses the word mercy and says that Atlantis does not believe in mercy. But Arthur rejects that tradition and chooses to show mercy, sparing Orm’s life.

So again, we see a coherent theme here, with the movie sending the message that we should show even more mercy than we have received. And Arthur is a good character with which to bring forward that message, because he is not wholly Atlantean, and so he can break free from Atlantis’s restrictive ideas about mercy. And he also lived for years with the pain of thinking that his mother had been sacrificed, but now he has her back, and so he can push for a more merciful example.

Now, in a well-drawn theme, it’s not just that the main character should embody the message, it’s also that you should have an antagonist who illustrates the antithesis. And we find that antithesis in Orm. He is not showing any mercy to the surface world, and in fact he murders the fisherman king for even suggesting some sort of forgiveness and moving beyond the destruction caused by the surface dwellers.

Alright, next up is the idea of destiny versus choice. We are still working on this one, and we’ll follow it forward into our scene-by-scene analysis, but a case could be made that a theme of the movie is that People should choose their own future. This may seem counterintuitive at first, because there’s all the talk of Arthur being the “one true king” and the heir of King Atlan. So in that sense, Arthur seems destined to be king. Also, the opening narration, from Jules Verne, seems to appeal to destiny. “Put two ships in the open sea, without wind or tide, they will come together.” So in one sense, this might be about the idea of certain people being destined to meet one another. But when we look throughout the entirety of events in the film, it seems as though destiny is not the driving force, but rather, that people choose their own future. Atlanna right at the start chose to flee an arranged marriage, and that choice led to love. Then she chose to leave the love of her family in order to protect them. Later, Mera also flees an arranged marriage, and in doing so she helps to save the world (and she also finds love, by the way). With regard to Arthur being predestined to wield the trident, we can see that just because he is able to wield the trident does not mean he had to. It was his choice to join Mera’s cause in the first place, and Arthur made choices to go forward every step of the way that eventually did lead to the trident.

So I guess you could look at this in at least two ways – you could see this as people making their own choices and thus forging their own destiny. Or you could see this as just the way that destiny operates, through people’s choices. We’ll have to think more about this one. But speaking of arranged marriages – it is certainly noteworthy that both of the major women characters rejected an arranged marriage within a patriarchal society. But in past films, it’s sort of a trope that women reject the arranged marriage because they instead want to seek their “true love.” Women are often positioned as being at the mercy of love or the pursuit of love. But in Aquaman, Atlanna actually went back to the arranged marriage to save those she loved. And Mera does not break with her arranged marriage because of love, she breaks with it because she is trying to save her people and prevent war. It seems as though Mera would actually be willing to adhere to the arranged marriage if it would mean saving others. So in both of these cases, the women are thinking about others, not themselves, as they make decisions about the arranged marriages.

To me, I like the idea of honoring those choices and thus framing the theme around choice and forging your own future rather than being swept up in the currents of destiny. Also, taking this perspective has the advantage of Orm again offering a coherent antithesis. If the theme is that people should be free to choose their own futures, then Orm is doing the opposite of that by manipulating and ultimately forcing other kingdoms to bend to his will.

Alright, now let’s return to the idea of two worlds and also the comparison between kings and heroes. It seems as though one theme from the film might be that it is false to separate the world into two parts when we are actually all here together. This theme is an important message for us in the real world. In highly partisan times, it is important to remember that we actually share society with people from other political parties. We are more of a family that has to live together than we are competing sports teams or warring factions, even though we tend to fall into contentious dialogue based on the idea of competition. The idea of us all in this world together is also relevant in the context of the rise of nationalism in the United States and in certain parts of Europe. Rather than highlighting national boundaries, we can recognize the deep connections that we all have, and we can recognize the world and the environment that we all share. It reminds me of one of the seven guiding principles of Unitarian Universalism, which is that we should all have respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.

So this theme connects to the eco-warrior aspects of Orm’s motivation, but Orm is seeing the pollution and environmental degradation through the lens of us and them – them, the surface dwellers, are to blame, and they should be subjugated to us, the Atlanteans. This is not a productive mindset for actually solving the problem. It would be more productive to look for common interests and to recognize that it is one planet, unifying above and below the water.

This theme about not being two separate things but actually one unified body also provides a nice resolution for Arthur’s character. Arthur has felt like he is split between two worlds, and he has been labeled a half breed, half in one world and half in the other. But if we realize the split is false, then this unifies both parts of himself. We can see early on in the movie that Arthur is still viewing the world in a separated fashion. When Mera mentions Steppenwolf and how Aquaman helped protect Atlantis in the events of Justice League, Arthur responds that that had nothing to do with Atlantis. Arthur is harboring some deep anger at Atlantis and so his actions in Justice League were basically to save the surface world. He is viewing them as separate, and his feelings toward them are separated. But Mera brings forward the idea that their fates are tied together, and she says that a war will results in death and destruction for both Atlantis and the surface world alike. This provides some opportunities for Arthur to grow in his perspective, and of course Atlanna provides the culmination at the very end when she explicitly states that it is misleading to think of the two as separate.

This theme also ties into the idea of Kings versus Heroes --- I was originally thinking of kings as being defined by birth and heroes by choice and action. That idea would connect a little bit with the theme of destiny, but the movie took the King / Hero distinction in a slightly different direction. They explicitly said that a King is more focused nationalistically, whereas a Hero protects the world, regardless of nationality. So king can operate within a world of divisions, and indeed thrives on those divisions, serving only those under his dominion, as Orm tries to, but a hero would be one that breaks down divisions and defends the world more broadly, as both Arthur and Mera do. In other words, if you separate things into two worlds, into us and them, then a King is responsible just for us, not for them. But a true hero would be working to save us and them, together as one, breaking down any barriers or walls that might be erected between the two.

So we’ve got some working themes, and they all seem fairly coherent as far as we can tell upon first viewings, and they hang together as a nice set. We should show mercy to others, even more mercy than we may have received. This will help us break down barriers between people, and instead of making enemies we can make new allies, and thus we can break down the false separation between us and them and realize we are all in this world together. And all of these actions can take place because of our own choices, as we forge our own destiny – are not just at the mercy of the ocean’s tides.

We will continue to trace those themes throughout our scene-by-scene analysis, and possibly revise them, or look for disconfirming evidence. There are also two other potential themes that we noticed but we haven’t really been able to follow through on them yet. One other possible theme comes from Arthur and Mera’s conversation in the Sahara desert. They talk about not judging something before you’ve seen its full range of characteristics. This is a fine sentiment, but I’m not sure it resonates all the way through the film. For example, Arthur wasn’t just judging Atlantis based on first impressions, he was judging them based on the fact that they attacked his family and then caused his mother to leave and ultimately be sacrificed. I personally think it is fair to judge a civilization based on how they treat and attempt to execute your mother. Sure, there are other sides to the story and other aspects of Atlantis, but I don’t think it’s reasonable to tell Arthur he shouldn’t have judged Atlantis before then. Similarly, Mera does have a basis for her judgment of the surface world. She has seen how they treat the oceans and she also saw the part that they played in Steppenwolf’s invasion. It’s true that she shouldn’t judge the surface dwellers just based on the Sahara desert, but the Atlanteans do have legitimate gripes against the surface world.

Another reason I’m not sure the theme works especially well is that the film is not really the story of Arthur coming to fully understand Atlantean civilization and customs. Nor does Mera get to know the surface world beyond Arthur and a little bit of time in Sicily. So this theme may at best be ancillary, but it’s not fully developed through all aspects of the film.

The other possible theme, based on explicit dialogue, is what Mera says in the plane ride. She’s talking about how she has lost her home because she betrayed them to side with Arthur. She says that her obligation isn’t to love but to her family and her nation, to do the right thing. Then she says, “Sometimes you have to do what’s right, even if your heart aches against it.” This could be taken as a thesis statement. But I’m not sure if it’s really fully developed throughout the remainder of the movie. It may be more of just an encapsulation of Mera’s character, but we’ll have to think about that some more.

The last thing we want to say about the thematic content of the movie is that we are happy to see that it is consistent with all the movies in the Justice League Universe thus far. As we’ve covered several times before, they all address a larger question of whether humanity is worth saving. And they all answer this question in the positive – even though humanity has its problems, it is still worth saving. Every film in the JLU has something important and insightful to say on this point.

    Man of Steel shows a world that can be full of bullies and fearful of those who are different, but they can come around and grow to be more understanding. Clark sees that potential and decides that they are worth saving, that humanity still deserves its chance to develop.

    In BvS, humanity can be quick to judge, before all the facts are in, and they can be misled by false information and a billionaire who is manipulating the public narrative, but Superman again decides that they are still worth saving. Bruce comes to understand that men are still good and that they can do better.

    In Suicide Squad we see people who have committed horrific acts, but they can still be redeemed, they are still worth saving, and they are willing to save each other and the world that punished them in the past.

    In Wonder Woman, Diana sees the ugliness and the brutality of mankind, but she also sees the good sides and the love that is possible, even in death. So she rises to their defense.

    In Justice League, we see a population that is starting to give in to despair and we see people from many different backgrounds who could very easily remain isolated, but instead they join together to form a new unity and they rekindle hope as they save the world again.

    And now, with Aquaman, we see that humanity pollutes the waters and degrades the environment, but this shouldn’t condemn them to death. There is still beauty in the world, and we should all realize that we are in this together so we can break down our barriers and save the planet.

So those are our initial thoughts on themes in the film. And actually one final theme that we’ll mention is something that comes up at least 4 times in the movie, and it really offers some guidance in terms of how to live your life – and that is, always be ready for a surprise attack from your enemies.

Okay, let’s move on into some characters.


Arthur Curry / Aquaman (Jason Momoa)

Arthur Curry, also known as the Aquaman, is of course the main character in the film, with Mera a very close second -- almost an equal co-star until the ending when Arthur takes center stage. As people are responding to movies in general, a lot of attention tends to go to the personality or characterization of a movie’s lead, and in this case, Jason Momoa does a fine job of carrying the movie with great physicality, an intriguing devil-may-care sort of attitude and toughness, a rough-around-the-edges presentation, and of course the word that is probably used most often in relation to this movie, “badass”. All of that is good and a compelling take on the character, reclaiming Aquaman from the joke bin where he had been relegated in the past and instantly setting forth a new cultural touchstone for the character.

But as a podcast team, we are most interested in the main character arc for Arthur. The primary growth that we see, based on our initial viewings, is twofold. First, and this connects back to Justice League even, he goes from being a sort of aimless loner -- a good guy, but one without a clear direction to his life or a clear home. He has his father, but that’s his parents’ home, he hasn’t really found his own place in the world at the start of Aquaman. Then, by the end of the film, he has found a purpose, not just as the king of Atlantis but as a new sort of king who might be able to usher in a new era of relationship between those in the sea and those on the surface. He has also gone from a loner to someone who is building meaningful relationships with Mera and with his mother; he is even leaving the door open to reconciling with his half brother, though we’ll have to see how that goes.

But anyway, this arc of him finding his place and his purpose is one of the main elements of the film. Another main character arc is one that relates to the theme of mercy. Arthur Curry goes from leaving Jesse Kane to die, and from trying to rush in and kill Orm in the ring of fire, to a very different place at the end of the film -- he spares Orm’s life and offers to talk once he’s ready. How did he learn this lesson of showing mercy? Well, it was largely from being with Mera. He observed Mera saving his own father, which contrasted early on with Arthur leaving Jesse Kane to die. And he also talked it through with Mera, realizing that in failing to show mercy, he created a new enemy for himself in Black Manta, whereas if he was a more merciful type of hero, maybe he would make new allies, or at least minimize the number of enemies. This is a nice arc for the character and it culminates really well in the climax of the film, with the plot and the themes interlocking coherently with the character development.

There was also a bit of a minor sub-arc that we detected, too, which is that Arthur went from someone who busts in and just uses his brute strength to power through situations, and someone who tends to ignore plans, like he did with the ring of fire, to someone who realizes that plans are important and that maybe he should listen to people who are wiser than himself, such as Mera or his mother. These ability to take good advice rather than always operating on impulse is a key skill for a leader and so it’s good that he learned this lesson on his way to becoming king. This sub-arc was accentuated near the end after his kiss with Mera, when he joked that he had forgotten the plan, but he asked for a reminder about it, which was very different from earlier when he just basically ignored the plan, or earlier when he slapped the location device out of Mera’s hands.

Mark Hughes, who writes about film at, also complimented Arthur’s character arc. He viewed him as having a sort of cocky exterior but harboring some deeper-seated doubts about whether he can live up to his destined role as king of Atlantis or hero bridging two worlds. He views Arthur as initially having a barrier up, insulating himself from deep relationships, but eventually he comes around and forms those relationships and steps forward to meet that destiny. We’ll put a link to Hughes’ full review in the show notes.

Mera (Amber Heard)

Next, let’s take a look at Mera, played by Amber Heard. For me, she was really one of the highlights of the film. I appreciated how she was written and portrayed. As Amber Heard said when Zack Snyder convinced her to take the part, she didn’t want to play a subordinate sort of female character who would constantly need rescuing, but Snyder assured her that Mera was a complete hero in her own right. Heard described Mera in a behind-the-scenes video, saying “she’s no damsel in distress. She’s this strong, badass, empowered superhero.” And that certainly comes through in the film. For the majority of the film, she is on equal footing with Aquaman, and at times she is actually in quite a better position than him as she is wiser and more cognizant of the full situation they are dealing with. At the very end of the film, she takes a bit of a back seat to Arthur’s full emergence as Aquaman, but that doesn’t take away from the very strong characterization throughout the bulk of the movie.

In many films in the action or superhero genres, women characters are often at the mercy of villains or they are just there as the love interest of the male leads. This is not the case with Mera, however. She is very proactive throughout the movie. Right from the start, she is the one who decides to come ashore and recruit Arthur as a means to stop Orm’s march to war. She is the one who brings him down for the clandestine meeting with Vulko. She also makes the decision to break from her Atlantean ties and save Arthur from the ring of fire. She leads him in finding the kingdom of the deserters and retrieving the trident -- don’t get me wrong, Arthur helps, and he’s the heir who has to retrieve the trident at the end, but it’s basically Mera’s show along the way.

She is incredibly selfless as a character. She is never thinking about what this will mean for herself or about her own comfort or desires -- she is willing to completely devote herself to what is best for the people of Atlantis and to prevent war. She risks being outcast and separated from her own people, but she’s willing to do it if it will save lives. She is actually a true hero long before Aquaman is. And this selflessness even extends to the end of the film, when she graciously steps aside and let’s Aquaman have his moment. She doesn’t seek credit, even though she deserves a lot of it.

Mera also has some character growth in terms of getting to know the surface world a little bit more than she did before, and she also gets to know Arthur. She is instrumental in supporting his growth that we talked about before. But she also does assert herself when needed. The plane ride is an especially important scene for Mera. Arthur is complaining that he doesn’t have a home, and Mera reminds him that she has completely given up her home by choosing to come with him. Arthur also tries to point out that at least she avoided being married to Orm, whom she didn’t love, but she has a great response. She says that her duty isn’t to love, as is often the case with women characters in past fairy tales, but rather her duty is to saving her people and trying to do her best to help the world avoid tragedy.

On a more surface level, it was also just very cool to see Mera’s aqua-kinetic powers. She has a very visual power set, which works amazingly well on screen, and the filmmakers came up with some creative ways to deploy her powers in different situations. Her rescue of Tom Curry near the beginning was a great way to give her an action-rich, heroic entry. And her entire sequence in Sicily was very memorable.

Orm / Oceanmaster (Patrick Wilson)

The third major character of course was Orm, played by Patrick Wilson, who has worked in the past with James Wan and Zack Snyder. Comic book movies often rise or fall with the quality of their villain, and Aquaman benefits from having a good one. First of all, Orm has a unique look and a recognizable silhouette, with his slicked-back blonde hair and then with his full Oceanmaster costume and helmet. Second, he has a clear motivation that drives the plot of the film -- he wants to lead the various kingdoms of Atlantis in rising against the surface dwellers. This is something that any general audience member can follow along with, it poses a clear, high-stakes threat, and it ties in with real-world concerns as we actually do have a lot of pollution to be concerned about, and there’s a lot we don’t know about life in the sea. James Wan on Twitter pointed out that Orm is an eco-warrior at heart, so this gives us an impetus to take care of the oceans! And Patrick Wilson also talked on DC Daily about how the crux of Orm’s whole position is how the surface is polluting the oceans. This is more than just the massive oil spills, although those are terrible. If you haven’t heard of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, you should really look it up. In short, it’s a floating pile of plastic in the Pacific Ocean that’s more than twice as big as Texas. There’s also a garbage patch growing in the Atlantic Ocean. Thankfully, the United Nations started to make some progress in ocean clean-up in 2018, but we have a really long way to go.

But Orm’s characterization goes well beyond those two main elements of character design and obvious motivation. He also has some complex emotional dilemmas that undergird his primary motivation. He is not just mad at the surface world because of pollution, he also harbors resentment because his mother loved someone on the surface world more than she did his own father, and that love of surface dwellers led to her supposed death. So this animosity toward the surface is also very personal for Orm. He is also not just trying to invade the surface world, he is also power hungry for its own sake in terms of trying to become the Oceanmaster over all the kingdoms of Atlantis. There’s this interesting complexity, because on one level, he wants to become Oceanmaster to lead the invasion of the surface, but on another level, he seems to just want to become Oceanmaster to become Oceanmaster and claim this ultimate power. It might even be that he wants this title of power because he actually feels a bit inadequate, being the second-favorite son and the younger brother of a would-be crown prince. So he’s trying to fill that void or that self-doubt by conquering and crushing others.

It’s also especially tragic if you view Orm and think about the fact that both of the most important women in his life -- his mother and his fiancee -- both basically rejected him in favor of his older brother, an outsider who eventually overthrows him. That is almost enough to make you feel bad for the guy, especially when he realizes that his mother is still alive but then he tragically says, “You’re with him?”.

And speaking of Arthur, Orm works well as a villain in this first film because Orm is tied directly to Aquaman’s origin story, and he is also a strong contrast to Arthur. As Patrick Wilson explained on DC Daily, he tried to play Orm as the opposite of Arthur. Wilson said, quote, “I tried to be as opposite from him as I could. He [Arthur] has such a swagger… the loose cannon aspect of it. So I wanted Orm to be very precise, very skilled, very technical, very stern.”

Another thing I like about Orm in this movie is how his story is resolved. He doesn’t get killed, but rather, he gets spared and he has to be led off in defeat. This is fitting because, as Brent and Ray from the podcast Fans Without Borders explained, Orm spent the entire film waging war amongst the kingdoms of Atlantis and trying to wage a war on the surface world, so it is poetic justice that he is defeated peacefully. It’s basically Arthur and Mera’s ultimate triumph, because the two heros were striving for peace, and so Orm is defeated peacefully, which is a true victory.

I also really liked how they plotted out the film and gave Arthur an opportunity to have two showdowns with each of the villains -- the ring of fire with Orm, and then the final battle with Orm. And there was also the submarine battle with David Kane and then the Italy battle with Black Manta. This gave us a chance to see Arthur’s growth as we compare and contrast the first showdowns with the later showdowns, and it also gives us a chance to soak in Orm as the antithesis to Aquaman.

We will have to look at the film in more detail, but I will say that one drawback to Orm as a comic book villain is that he doesn’t have one of those jaw-dropping, instant-classic villain scenes. Or at least for me he didn’t, but he is a very good villain overall and works well in the broader context of what this story was doing.

Secondary Characters

Alright, now we’re just going to very briefly run through a few of the secondary characters. We just mentioned David Kane, aka Black Manta. And we do want to say that the actor, Yahya Abdul-Mateen, gave a very intense and strong performance as Black Manta. They also built in a good explanation for the tech suit and the classic Black Manta helmet, and it worked well how they tied him into the main plot. He also had a strong personal motivation related to vengeance -- it is somewhat one-dimensional, but that’s okay for a secondary character. And his revenge over the death of a parent serves to contrast well with Arthur, also angered by the apparent death of his mother. The fact that Arthur actually gets his mother back, whereas Black Manta will not get his father back, may add fuel to the fire in the future.

And by the way, I liked it that David Kane and Orm were both introduced very strongly, with a close up of them pulling off their helmets. A nice visual motif there.

Stephen Shin was a nice addition to the movie, representing some surface-dweller interest in the societies under the water and showing that the surface world really would be caught off guard if Atlantis did invade. The possibility of him collaborating with Black Manta going forward is a very interesting prospect.

Part of the real heart of the movie was Nicole Kidman as Atlanna and Temuera Morrison as Thomas Curry. They both put in really good performances and the love story between them was very efficiently pulled off. And the idea of having Tom walk out on the Maine dock every morning was a stroke of genius -- possibly inspired by Futurama and the episode “Jurassic Bark,” but I’m not sure. Either way, it worked really well. And the parents were effective in terms of Arthur’s story, with Tom representing Arthur’s down-to-earth side and Atlanna representing his royal potential.

Vulko, played by Willem Dafoe, was a nice mentor character, serving as Arthur’s only connection to Atlantis as a young person, and also as a collaborator with Mera. I was personally glad that they deviated a bit from the Throne of Atlantis storyline in terms of Vulko’s character. This film didn’t need the extra twists and turns, because there was already the twist with Atlanna still being alive.

Nereus was also an effective secondary character, played surprisingly well by Dolph Lundgren. He is somewhat of a barometer in the film, because he is initially reluctant to start a war but he shares Orm’s distaste for the surface world, so it doesn’t take much for him to join the cause. But then he can be convinced by the end to abandon Orm’s side and support his daughter and Aquaman. It could be that he saw the magic trident and adhered to ancient Atlantean law, accepting the trident-wielder as the true king. Or it could be that he simply likes to side with a winner, so as Orm was on his way to being Oceanmaster, Nereus sided up to him, but when Orm was on his way to being defeated, Nereus switched and sided with Aquaman and Mera. Either way, I will be very interested in seeing him in an Aquaman sequel.

Music as a character in the film

The last character we want to mention is the musical score, by Rupert Gregson-Williams, which is sort of a character in any film. We have seen quite a bit of praise for the score, especially for the use of synthesizers as a way to bring to life the underwater, bioluminescent scenes in Atlantis. We agree with those assessments, as the mix of orchestral and synthesized instruments gave a nice audio language to go with the visual world they created underwater.

At times the score was a bit overly melodramatic, but I would say it was very strong on the whole. And it was especially nice to hear some distinct musical themes for each of the main characters. Aquaman has a good little motif that starts with rising intervals that are perfect fourths and perfect fifths -- very heroic sounding intervals and ones that work well with the perfect fifth and perfect fourth of Clark’s theme in Man of Steel.

On the villain side, Orm and Black Manta both had descending low notes as their themes -- and by the way, all three of the main themes -- Aquaman’s, Orm’s, and Black Manta’s -- are in the key of C. That might’ve been a cute choice by Gregson-Williams, since the movie also takes place in the sea.

Anyway, Orm’s theme is very ominous and it reminded me immediately of the Right of Spring by Igor Stravinsky. It’s not a direct replication, but there is a similarity in rhythm and articulation from the low brass. We can play them for you. First you’ll hear the Rite of Spring, as it appears in the Fantasia film from 1940, and then you’ll hear the main theme for Orm by Rupert Gregson-Williams.

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I think this is a nice way to tap into the cultural zeitgeist and bring those complex and dangerous notions and apply them to Orm.

And then there’s Black Manta’s theme, which is very similar to Orm’s -- making them a good pair as two villains who do work together in the same film -- but the feel and instrumentation is different. Whereas Orm has the metallic brass sound, which is more regal and matches his shimmering costume, Manta instead has a synthesized bass slide that kind of has a plasma feel to it, which is fitting. So I’m going to play those main three Orm notes again, and then go right into Black Manta’s theme.

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For the remaining portion of the episode, see the blog post on Connections to Prior DCEU Films.

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