Monday, April 15, 2019

JLU Scene-by-Scene: Aquaman Scene 5

This episode of the Justice League Universe podcast focuses on Scene 5 (Young Arthur at the Boston Aquarium) of Aquaman, directed by James Wan.

  • Boston, aka New England, Aquarium (0:20)
  • Connections to Justice League (3:36)
  • Connections to Man of Steel (4:21)
  • Shark attack (6:36)
  • Young Arthur's power display (7:18)
  • End of Prologue (9:25)
  • Outro (11:05)

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<Transcript below>

Welcome, fans of Aquaman. My name is Sam. I am one member of the JLU Podcast team who use this podcast to analyze the DC Films from Warner Brothers studios. Other contributors to our Aquaman analysis are Alessandro, Rebecca, and Sydney. You can find us all on twitter and you can follow the show @JLUPodcast.

In this episode, we cover Scene 5 of Aquaman, which is the end of the prologue sequence and it’s a quick scene that takes place in the Boston Aquarium. Having an early scene in an aquarium is kind of an obvious but nevertheless a fitting choice. It plays into the water theme that is pervasive in a movie called Aquaman, but it’s also a moment where we can implicitly contrast the manner in which most of us have interacted with sea life -- in very controlled, artificial, and pretty limited ways -- which is very different from the richness and depth that we will see later on in the movie. In other words, if we think seeing a collection of fish swim by us in an aquarium is cool, wait until we go down to the luminescent grandeur of Atlantis and learn about the culture of the various kingdoms and see creatures that we scarcely imagined. Just as these early powers that young Arthur exhibits are only the smallest glimpse of the future potential of Arthur Curry, so too are the aquarium exhibits only the smallest glimpse of all that lies beneath the oceans of the world.

Now, the Boston Aquarium is sort of a real place. There is a nice aquarium in Boston but it’s called the New England Aquarium, not the Boston Aquarium, and it was not actually the location for the filming of this scene. It does host a lot of school field trips, though, so that part is very realistic, and some parts of Maine are only an hour or so from the New England Aquarium, so that makes sense too. And in real life, the New England Aquarium did benefit from the attention it got in the movie. It posted an informative web article addressing this scene and how a shark would not actually be able to break aquarium glass. They also point out that their aquarium does not house large sharks and manta rays like those shown in the movie because, to be humane, they would need much more space than their giant ocean tank.

Backing up a bit, we should say that getting into the scene, we had the smooth transition through the water, having followed Atlanna out of Scene 4, and the camera dove down with her into the ocean and then it tracked along with a school of fish, bringing us over to the glass of the aquarium. This transition is continuing along with the editing aesthetic that was already established, where we have lots of smooth and flowing transitions rather than hard cuts.

One of the first things we hear in the scene is the tour guide saying that we have better maps of Mars than we do of the ocean, which is a subtle foreshadowing of the fact that there are whole civilizations and some deep trenches that we are currently unaware of but that we’ll learn about before the end of the movie. Then we see a couple boys pounding on the glass, which tips us off right away that these are some bratty and prone-to-violence kids.

Then we see Arthur being kind of sweet and standing by himself. He is literally talking to the fish, saying “Hi fishy” and asking what their names are. But it’s very innocent and he’s not hurting anyone, so he is endearing himself to the audience and we can be immediately frustrated at the bullies coming over. As is often the case with Aquaman, they make fun of him for talking to the fish -- similar to what we saw with Bruce Wayne in Justice League, so it’s interesting to think about how an adult Arthur may still carry around the wounds of this sort of bullying, and those wounds could be reopened by someone like Bruce Wayne commenting on him talking to fish, but in the case of Justice League, Arthur is actually the one throwing Bruce Wayne up against the wall. Maybe Arthur’s tough guy attitude as an adult is partially forged by moments like this in Aquaman, together with the pain that he must feel for having been separated from his mother.

But anyway, the bullies push Arthur up against the aquarium glass and they call him a freak. This bullying and the fact that we’re seeing an adolescent version of the main character, also connects back in a strong way to Man of Steel. In both Aquaman and Man of Steel we see the main character as an infant and as a sort of outcast getting bullied during his school years. These bullying scenes are a very simple yet effective way to build that connection between the audience and the protagonist. Everyone basically sides with the person getting picked on when they see scenes like this. And Arthur being called a “freak” is also a direct connection to Clark in Man of Steel. Both characters have a bit of an outcast sort of issue that they have to deal with, and both end up internalizing that somewhat and becoming loners for at least a period of their adult life -- with Arthur roaming up to Iceland to help out, like we saw in Justice League, just as Clark was working on a ship and hitchhiking around Canada, also helping out when he had the chance.

For both Arthur and Clark, they didn’t allow that bullying or that ostracization turn them cold or bitter -- they maintained their good heart and they helped others, even if they didn’t always have a clear place in formal society. I will say that personally I think Man of Steel does a more thorough job of weaving those dynamics into the full character arc throughout the movie, but here in Aquaman too, there is the personal thread of Arthur not really feeling at home in either world, and later being bullied by Atlanteans similar to how he is bullied here, but he also has his fanboys in the bar up in Maine and it seems like he could’ve found a very productive life for himself on land if he had wanted to --- he’s not that much of a freak. Although I guess he would never really be able to go to the doctor or have a physical exam or anything like that. So I think the bullying does work as a precursor to both character arcs.

It also just fits in with the meta-textual level of Aquaman being the butt of jokes in the past, but now in popular culture rising to a place of more respected and successful prominence.

Anyway, continuing forward, as the bullies are pushing Young Arthur up against the glass, a big shark comes to his defense and slams against the glass. The bullies immediately step back. This is a nice encapsulation of how, having sea life on your side can immediately turn the tables of a confrontation. The big shark slams into the glass two more times and visibly cracks it. Everyone is pretty frightened, but Young Arthur, played well by Kaan Guldur, actually turns around and looks at the visibly angry shark. It’s interesting to think about the fact that the shark could already sense in some way who Arthur was -- the son of Queen Atlanna, and descendent of King Atlan. And then Arthur brings that connection to the next level by lifting up his hand and linking up with the fish -- presumably feeling what they feel and allowing them to feel what he feels. This connection is shown visually with some emanating sort of waves in the water, and then all the fish in the aquarium gather behind him.

We don’t know if Arthur has done this before or if he just instinctively knew how to make this connection, but the power is emphasized not only by the visuals but also by the music, with Aquaman’s main theme being introduced here in the horns. It’s further emphasized by seeing the strong reactions from the bullies and the rest of the aquarium guests, and then a close-up of Arthur with his colored eyes adjusting to the moment.

This is a very clear yet very effective setup for the later parts in the film. This is obviously the setup, we will get a reminder in the middle of the movie when Arthur and Mera go inside the whale, and then there are two big payoffs --- both with the Karathen and with Arthur commanding the sea legions in the final battle. This scene is not just a good setup in terms of that power for Arthur, but it’s also a nice way to show how Arthur and his power to connect and empathize with sea life contrasts with the bullies, and perhaps with many different types of people. Just as some people and some Atlanteans can be cruel or selfish, Arthur has a soft heart and a natural ability to connect with other creatures, which is a nice character trait. And it not only allows him to make it past the Karathen but it also is one of the main things that makes him a fitting leader.

To wrap up here, we should also say that the cinematography is very nice in this scene, with the consistent blue tones and the nice ripples from the light passing through water. And then again, the camera flows smoothly out into the water and we see more schools of fish which eventually form the Aquaman title card. And this wraps up the prologue portion of the movie, which covers its first 11 minutes out of 2 hours and 23 minutes -- which is only about 7% of the movie’s runtime.

Aquaman having a prologue is similar in storytelling structure to Man of Steel and Wonder Woman (ignoring Wonder Woman’s short opening sequence in Paris), but both of those films had longer prologues, and neither ended with an explicit title card. All three, however, gave us insight into the background of the characters, set a foundation that would be meaningful for their later growth, and also planted some seeds for the main plot. In the case of Aquaman, we have the lack of mercy and forgiveness on the part of the Atlanteans, we have an illegitimate prince, and we have Queen Atlanna going into some sort of exile. We also have James Wan establishing a pretty clear tone already, with some heart, some humor, a fluid editing motif, and a small sample of Atlantean technology and trident-based combat. We also just heard a very clear and memorable musical theme for Arthur. So overall, it’s a strong lead-in to the film and its very efficient in terms of what it accomplished in a relatively short amount of time.

End of Episode

That’s our analysis of Scene 5 of Aquaman. Our next episode will actually be our Shazam! review episode, but after that, we will continue on with our scene-by-scene analysis of both Aquaman and Justice League. And also, over at, we will moving forward in our detailed breakdown of Man of Steel. If you want to hear that Man of Steel analysis, as well as our other bonus content on patreon, you can get access to all of it by supporting the show at a level of $4 per month.

We thank our current patrons very much for their support, and we also thank you for listening.

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