Why 'Aquaman' Has Heavy Lifting to Do After 'Justice League'

What was all of that Atlantis sequence about, anyway?
Courtesy of Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.,
Amber Heard as Mera in 'Justice League'

[Warning: This story contains spoilers for Justice League.]

The Atlantis sequence in Justice League proved two things. Firstly, that the Aquaman movie is either going to feature a lot of scenes taking place out of water or be a mostly dialogue-less feature, and secondly, the Atlantean mythology of it all is going to require some heavy lifting on the part of the filmmakers.

The film has been a critical and commercial disappointment, but even had it been a hit, there'd be a lot of work to be done. Perhaps the most confusing is the seeming decision on behalf of Zack Snyder et al. to retcon Mera (Amber Heard) into the mix as a child, as suggested by the exchange she and Jason Momoa's Aquaman have midway through the movie. Judging by that conversation, Mera was adopted as a child by Aquaman's mother, who was the ruler of Atlantis, and raised as … well, that's not exactly certain. Atlantean royalty? A warrior? Both? It was entirely unclear, and will remain so until Aquaman swims into theaters in December of next year.

This is a significantly different backstory for Mera than the one — more accurately, the many — found in DC comics lore. In every comic book take on Mera, she doesn't come from Atlantis at all; instead, she comes from an alternate dimension either called Dimension Aqua or Xebel, depending on which incarnation of the character you're reading, and becomes part of Atlantean society as a result of her relationship with Aquaman. Traditionally, she plays a somewhat outsider role with relation to Atlantis' norms, which suggests she and Aquaman may find their positions flipped in their cinematic incarnations. (The story needs one fish out of water, after all.)

Similarly, Aquaman's comic book relationship with Atlantis is usually far closer than it appears in Justice League, although he's certainly found himself on the outs with the undersea kingdom on more than one occasion. (In the current comic book series, he was recently deposed as the ruler of Atlantis by a xenophobe whose dialogue was reminiscent of certain American political leaders.) Nevertheless, the comic book Aquaman quickly embraced the heritage of his undersea people, who in turn just as eagerly accepted him as their king, a far cosier state of affairs than that glimpsed onscreen.

This is because the birth of Aquaman, in multiple versions of his origin, is simultaneously less and more traumatic than the circumstances suggested on screen. In some tellings of the story, Arthur Curry wasn't abandoned by his Atlantean Queen mother, but instead accompanied by her to the mainland, and raised by her before her death when he was a child. There are alternate versions — ones in which Atlanna wasn't a Queen at all, or even those in which she never existed, and Arthur was simply a human who learned to breathe underwater — but the movie appears to hew closest to the mythology from a 1989 retcon to the hero's comic book's past, where Arthur was abandoned by his mother because she believed him to be cursed, as the result of his being born with blonde hair. That wrinkle has since been abandoned, although it remains to be seen if a variation will serve as Jason Momoa's origin in the movie version of events.

In almost every version of the Aquaman story, his relationship with his nation and his lover are approached simultaneously on a mythic scope — a king straddling two worlds, in love with a queen doing the same — and a very human level; whether or not that'll be the approach in Aquaman won't be known until that movie is released, but based on the brief exchange between Mera and Aquaman in Justice League, it's a safe bet to assume that the mythic, at least, will be present.

Now, all James Wan and the rest of the Aqua-team needs to work out is how to have all the characters speak while underwater. There can't be that many air bubbles under the sea, after all.

Aquaman opens Dec. 21, 2018.

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