Tuesday, January 8, 2019

JLU Scene-by-Scene: Aquaman Scene 1

This episode of the Justice League Universe podcast focuses on Scene 1 (Tom Curry meeting Queen Atlanna) of Aquaman, directed by James Wan.

  • Thoughts on Arthur's character arc (0:34)
  • Logos, lighthouses, and the opening storm (4:29)
  • Jules Verne quote and destiny (9:51)
  • Tom Curry showing mercy (13:35)
  • Relationship-building inside the lighthouse (16:32)
  • The Dunwich Horror (20:17)
  • Closing (21:19)

Contributors: @ottensam @raveryn @derbykid @wondersyd
Special thanks - @AnnaOmmen @Dudeseid @PrimeEarthMook

<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. In this episode, we are going to analyze Scene 1 from Aquaman, directed by James Wan. The ideas and interpretations that follow were put together by myself with Alessandro Maniscalco, Rebecca Johnson, and Sydney. You can find us all on twitter and you can follow the show @JLUPodcast.

In this episode, we will refer back to a couple of the overarching themes that we identified in our last episode. In particular, we are going to talk about the ideas of destiny and mercy, which are two key ideas from the film. We also wanted to mention a couple ideas that we failed to include in our last episode about themes and character arcs. In particular, we have some further ideas to share about the main character, Aquaman.

First of all, we heard right away from our listener who goes by TheNew Youtuber. TheNew Youtuber wrote about how happy they were to see Aquaman’s key moment with the Karathen involve him humbling himself. It was a nice turn because Jason Momoa was consistently portraying this character as a bad ass and a rough-around-the-edges tough guy, but then to take that final step, he had to humble himself and just communicate. That’s a nice moment of growth for the character. And TheNew Youtuber also talked about how they liked the connection between the Justice League lasso moment, when Aquaman was lamenting that he hadn’t embraced the sea or the land, and that he’d been a loner. Arthur made some meaningful connections in Justice League, but it’s really through the story in Aquaman that he comes into his own and finds his place. So that’s a fitting arc for him.

The other thing that we wanted to address is that we’ve seen a few people complaining about that moment when Arthur is talking to the Karathen. People tend to agree that this is a nice moment, where he uses not his strength but his ability to connect with sea life, as foreshadowed with the shark in the aquarium prologue, and this is a good trait for a king to have -- not just strength, but communication and connection. People also like that his monologue with the Karathen shows his lessons learned, but the complaint is that he ends the monologue with a slight vulgarity, saying “if that’s not good enough, then screw you.” And the music doesn’t help things, by crescendoing and then backing out of the way for the “screw you”... an over-emphasis that Gregson-Williams does at least two others times in the score, in the bar for the selfie scene and also with Vulko for the “I already got one of those” trident line.

But there is a solid defense possible for this “screw you” ending to the Karathen monologue. And that is, it’s very consistent with his character throughout the film. He trash talks on the sub and down on the seafloor when he’s also in mortal danger, and he mentions an “ass whoopin’” when he’s in chains before a king. And also has a tender moment with Orm before their first fight, when he talks about missing his younger brother, but then he finishes that line by calling Orm a “dick”. So the “screw you” moment is basically a consistent part of the character, and although he has learned and grown throughout the film, he does not have to change who he is at his core.

And speaking of Arthur’s monologue there with the Karathen, in thinking about it some more, we have to revisit our conversation about the theme of destiny and choice. In our prior episode, we talked about how we are still formulating our perspectives on this theme and how there are some clear appeals to destiny, such as the Jules Verne quote and Arthur being the chosen one to remove the trident, but also some clear instances of choice, such as with Atlanna and Mera making proactive decisions about the direction of their lives. I had initially been leaning toward the power of choice, and how destiny really only happens because of active choices that people make in and around the main flow of events. But it’s possible that the filmmakers were really trying to go for more of a pure message about destiny. Because we just noticed that in that monologue with the Karathen, Arthur explicitly said that he “had no choice” with regard to stopping the war and taking his place as king. So the fact that the filmmakers put these pre-destined ideas explicitly throughout various parts of the film, maybe they are intending a message about fulfilling your destiny. Although I tend to be personally drawn to the idea of choice over destiny, we will have to continue to explore this theme throughout our analysis.

So in that spirit, let’s take a look at Scene 1. And actually, leading into Scene 1, we first wanted to mention that we really liked how they did the DC and WB logos. Just like we talked about in our Man of Steel scene 1 analysis, we really appreciate when the opening logos are already establishing the feel and tying into the visual design of the film. In this case, they went the obvious but very effective route of putting the logos underwater.

Speaking film openings, Man of Steel not only had logos that tied into the setting and style of Krypton but it also had a very meaningful opening with the birth of Kal-El. That birth was very important to the whole remainder of the story that was to be told. Of course, the parents, Lara and Jor-El, were there, and they were important, but Kal-El was the focus, and specifically his birth. In Batman v Superman, it opened with the imagery of fall -- a very important theme for the story -- and it also focused on the death of Bruce’s parents. Here in Aquaman, the opening sequence again focuses on parents, but instead of birth or death, the starting point and the focus is on the parents’ love. And that love makes sense here because it’s not just a heart-felt part of this story, but also because the love between Queen Atlanna and Tom Curry shows that the two worlds can come to understand one another and live together in peace -- and that is what Arthur Curry will eventually have to bring about on a large scale.

Okay, getting into Scene 1, we first hear a muffled and abstract sound of the slamming window shutter, mixed in with the background sounds of the logos, and then it smashes into full sound with the first image of the actual scene. We see the side of the lighthouse and there’s a vicious storm swirling around. The rain, the wind, the waves, and the various lightning strikes all bring a lot of energy into this opening scene. The setting is Amnesty Bay, Maine, 1985. Amnesty Bay, of course, is the very famous location from the comic books. It is sometimes set in Massachusetts, rather than Maine, but it’s always on the East coast, which will tie in nicely with the idea of the sunrise later.

But here in Maine, which was actually filmed near Hastings Point in New South Wales, Australia, we have Tom Curry, lighthouse keeper, working alone to try to close everything up. In the original creation of the Aquaman character, from the 1940s by Mort Weisinger and Paul Norris, Tom Curry was an undersea explorer instead of a lighthouse keeper. But ever since the silver age of comics, he’s been a lighthouse keeper.

Because we begin with the lighthouse here, and because there are a few moments where they give a clear shot of its light cycling around in the storm, we can mark this as a possible bit of symbolism. As @AnnaOmmen shared on twitter, the lighthouse is typically viewed as a marker for the way forward and a guide for navigating through rough waters, so if we take that metaphorically, then we might eventually view Arthur as a beacon of light or guidance for the troubled times that Atlantis is going through. We might add that a lighthouse also symbolizes consistency and dependability, and the pairing of the lighthouse symbol with Tom and Atlanna here in Scene 1 could be read as indicating that Tom and Atlanna’s love is a bedrock or consistent marker throughout the story. This interpretation also resonates with the fact that Tom eventually walks out to the end of the dock every morning, in a rhythmic pattern, just as the lighthouse beacon remains constant.

Alessandro points out that the lighthouse is also a nice symbol in representing Arthur’s character arc from Justice League and throughout Aquaman as he is guided to maturity and the responsibility that comes with it, as well as a sense of belonging which he lacked, perceiving to be cast out from two worlds.

The lighthouse as a warning about danger also match with Atlanna’s current situation. She is in a dangerous spot because of Atlantis not accepting her decision to leave and her eventual choice to have this relationship with a surface dweller. So just as the lighthouse marks dangerous obstructions in the water, it is also in a sense marking the danger of Atlanna being here with a surface dweller. And then of course a storm in film usually indicates that something bad is coming. Of course Atlanna herself is not bad, but she is running away from an arranged marriage, so that is tumultuous for her, and the storm and the rocks here may also foreshadow that their relationship will be dangerous and rocky. In the short term, the storm will contrast nicely with the peace and serenity that she finds with Tom, but in the longer term, the storm is an accurate foreshadowing of the up-and-down nature of their relationship.

So obviously Tom Curry sees a woman unconscious on the edge of the water, and we will find out that this is Queen Atlanna from Atlantis. In previous versions of Aquaman’s story, Tom Curry finds Arthur, not Atlanna, in the ocean, and adopts him as his own. However, it is more fitting to have Arthur as a cross-breed of land and water dwellers in pursuing the bridge-between-two-worlds theme, like Kal-El was to be for Earth and Krypton, and this version matches with the modern version in the comic books.

The first lines of the film are narration from the main character, similar to what we had with Batman v Superman and Wonder Woman before now. In this case, Arthur Curry says, “Jules Verne once wrote, ‘Put two ships in the open sea, without wind or tide, they will come together.’ That’s how my parents met. Like two ships destined for each other.” We first got to know Arthur in Justice League, where he was a fairly silent yet strong personality who kept to himself. So it seems fitting that, with the change in tone for this film and the opportunity to delve into his personal story more, it starts out with Arthur opening up and narrating about his personal life. It is also poetic that Arthur should quote Jules Verne who was born in a seaport and is known for writing 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Journey to the Center of the Earth.

With regard to the content of the Jules Verne quote, it obviously uses a water-based metaphor, and it appeals to the idea of destiny. It is an invisible force that brings the two ships together, and Arthur explicitly says it’s like his parents were destined for each other. And if his parents were destined to meet, then it’s only a small leap to say that they were also destined to fall in love and thus to have Arthur. And this idea is reiterated in just a few minutes from now, as @Dudeseid pointed out on twitter -- when Arthur meets David Kane on the submarine. Kane says, “I scavenge the high seas. You're the Aquaman. We were bound to meet at some point.” https://twitter.com/Dudeseid/status/1080998112116858881  

From one point of view, it’s interesting to think about destiny as bringing people together. And especially in the context of water and the ocean, it’s kind of fitting to think about the ocean as a massive force that sort of moves things around and pushes things together or pulls them apart regardless of our wishes. It’s like the idea that it’s futile to fight against the tide or it’s inevitable that you will lose if you fight against a strong current. But still, we can see choices that are made by people. Atlanna, we will find out, made a very deliberate choice to leave Atlantis, and that’s why she ends up at Amnesty Bay (though unfortunately she won’t receive Amnesty there). It’s also Tom’s choice to care for her himself rather than turning her over to authorities. And it’s Kane’s choice to scavenge the high seas -- it’s not an inevitability. Though if the film is taking the stance that your birth determines certain aspects of your future, then perhaps Kane is destined to scavenge as a pirate, because that seems to be the course that his grandfather and father laid out for him.

But anyway, the opening narration, which is of course a very crucial line because of its placement as the very first words we hear in the movie, establishes the idea of destiny as something we should be paying attention to. And in an overarching sense, this is sort of the story about the destiny of Arthur Curry’s birth and his rise to eventually take the throne of Atlantis. The story of Aquaman of course borrows elements of Arthurian Legend similar to how Batman v Superman did in its parallels to Excalibur. With the name Arthur, the somewhat bastard child of the Queen must rightfully claim a weapon to prove he is the destined one true king. It is very much the story of King Arthur from the sea.

We should also mention a connection to Wonder Woman here. Friend of the show, PrimeEarthMook on twitter, pointed out that Tom rescuing Atlanna on shore and her coughing up water is similar to Diana rescuing Steve Trevor on shore and him coughing up water. That is a nice parallel, and in both cases it’s the beginning of a love story, though in this case it’s the parents of our main character, whereas in Wonder Woman it was the main character herself.

As we’ve mentioned multiple times already, destiny is a key idea in this film, and another key idea is mercy. And we see also see mercy right away here in Scene 1. Tom Curry shows mercy right away by helping Atlanna without asking question, bringing her inside and caring for her. We get a sense of his character -- his kindness and compassion, and we also get a first chance to see the results of an act of mercy. Throughout the movie, we will find that acts of mercy lead to various positive results, and failing to show mercy leads to various negative results. In this case, Tom’s mercy and care leads to a longstanding love and a son. Tom’s mercy here also contrasts really well with what we will learn about Atlantis, which is that they are not merciful with Atlanna at all -- they force her to return and then eventually condemn her to the trench. On the other hand, Tom’s mercy connects well with Mera, and the filmmakers bring this connection home very effectively. Here in Scene 1, we’ll see that Tom bandaged up Atlanna’s wounds with bandages from the surface world. And later, we’ll see that Mera bandages up Arthur’s wounds with remedies from the sea. Those two moments, though separated by more than an hour’s duration in the film, are connected by being shot similarly. In both cases, the shot starts on Atlanna and Arthur’s face and then pans down to see the bandaging. So Atlanna and Arthur are both recipients of mercy, and this puts them in a better position at the end to show mercy to Orm.

As Tom brings Atlanna inside, we learn more about him. He appears to live simply, and we can identify a calm and humble personality through his demeanor and reactions. A good example of this is when Atlanna, who wakes up alone, is hungry and eats one of his goldfish. Rather than be upset, he finds it amusing. Although that moment may seem somewhat silly, it actually makes a lot of sense in context. Naturally, creatures who live in the sea would eat other sea creatures, and a small fish like that is likely to be a common snack. This is a good example of humor which arises organically, and it helps endear the characters to us. And the remark about not eating his dog is a nice way to build on the initial humor. Another good example of Tom’s personality is when Atlanna is startled by the television, something she’d never seen before, and destroys it with her trident. Rather than be upset about the television, Arthur’s father accepts the situation and focuses more on easing Atlanna’s fears.

That television, by the way, was showing an old submarine TV show. At first I was hoping it might be a Jules Verne adaptation, like 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, but it turns out that it was Stingray, the British marionnette show that was syndicated in the U.S. And that’s probably better anyway, because having a Jules Verne quote and then immediately seeing a Jules Verne show in the reality of the movie would be too on-the-nose. I am satisfied by the fact that later, the hidden ocean in the Earth’s Core is very reminiscent of Journey to the Center of the Earth.

Inside the house, Atlanna coughs up some water and Tom says, “You weren’t breathing,” as an explanation for why he carried her into the house. The funny thing is that he doesn’t realize he’s saying that to an Atlantean, who perhaps would’ve been better off back in the water, rather than on the surface, but luckily she is a highborn who can breathe in either place.

Arthur continues his narration by saying, “They were from different worlds.  But life, like the sea, has a way of bringing people together.” So now we have three major themes already set up in the first minutes of the film -- destiny, mercy, and different worlds. And here, the idea that life brings two people together, people from different worlds, already gives a hint at the resolution of this theme, which is that the two worlds will actually be merged as one. This continuation of the narration about people being brought together also ties in with Arthur’s Jules Verne quote. And it's a lesson that he learned, and we saw first hand, in Justice League with the forming of the league. And although it was Batman who reached out to each of them, it was the cause that gave rise to that need. This line can also be interpreted to reflect Clark’s relationship with Lois: both are from different worlds, and fate crossed their paths in the Arctic which eventually gave rise to their relationship. Although in Man of Steel it was the otherworlder doing the saving when Kal-El stops the ship’s computer from killing Lois, and here in Aquaman it’s the normal human who is saving the meta-human.

After Atlanna pierces the television set, foreshadowing her combat skills which will come into play in the next scene, there’s a smooth tracking shot moving to the left that seamlessly merges with the next shot of her on the couch. Now that we’re safe from the storm, we have this smooth camera moves and gentle editing transitions -- this smooth feel, with the camera flowing kind of like water, sets up a nice tone for this personal part of the opening sequence.

After the fish bit that we already mentioned, Tom shows his kindness by not being mad at all and instead sits down with cups of tea. He encourages her to try it, and it’s a nice moment because this is most likely a completely brand new experience for Atlanna. It’s hard to imagine drinking at all, let alone drinking hot tea, in Atlantis. And in fact, even the act of blowing air on something to cool it down is probably a new experience for Atlanna.

I think this moment of Tom Curry and Atlanna sharing a warm beverage might be an homage to the comic books, but I can’t recall the precise issue. If any of you know, please share it with us in the comments or on twitter @JLUPodcast.

But anyway, it’s a great personal moment between the two, and the filmmakers let it linger for several moments rather than just rushing through it. This is important as they only have a few minutes of screentime to establish this love story that will be important throughout the film.

Then, now that they’ve settled in a bit, Tom asks, “Who are you?” And after a pause, during which I wasn’t actually sure Atlanna would be speaking English or not, because she hadn’t spoken up until this point, she responds, “Atlanna, queen of Atlantis.” And just like with the trident throw and the goldfish snack, Tom Curry is endearing and kind as he responds without being flustered. “I’m Tom, keeper of lighthouse.” Altogether, it’s a very effective way to build the rapport between these characters and also connect us to them, to root for their relationship.

The scene ends with the camera pushing into a lighthouse snow globe, and just like there was when the camera tracked over to the couch, it will be a very smooth and flowing transition into the next scene.

End of Episode

That’s our analysis of Scene 1 of Aquaman. The only other thing we wanted to mention about that opening is that we noticed Tom plays some guitar and we also saw that one of the books
was The Dunwich Horror by HP Lovecraft. This was not by accident but is a favorite of James Wan’s. And there are some similarities between The Dunwich Horror and Aquaman. That story also takes place in the Northeast, in Massachusetts, and it is about a boy born to an abnormal, pale mother and he is unusual and is shunned by those in the neighborhood -- oh, and he has an unpleasant body odor. There also ends up being some climactic drama with the boy’s brother. But the similarities kind of stop there. The Dunwich Horror is much more of a sci-fi horror story. It kind of makes the point that the outcome of a union between two different worlds is an abomination, whereas Aquaman makes the opposite case. And although James Wan has taken visual inspiration from Lovecraft, he rejects the negative and sometimes racist undertones of those old stories.

Alright, that’s it for us today. Thanks so much for listening, and if you have friends or followers who are fans of Aquaman or just film analysis in general, please let them know about our podcast. We also want to give a special thank you to our patrons. And if you go to patreon.com/JLUPodcast you can see that we have started our full Man of Steel analysis. We are planning to release one episode per week on Man of Steel, and the first episode is available to all patrons but going forward it will just be for the patrons at the $4 level or above. So please join us there if you are a fan of Man of Steel. Next up on this public feed will be Aquaman Scene 2.

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