Why 'Aquaman' Feels Like a Fresh Approach for DC

What could be greater than a trailer? A five-minute footage reel. That’s exactly what Warner Bros. released Friday morning for James Wan’s Aquaman. The extended look gives viewers a greater glimpse at the scope and tone of the first cinematic adaptation of DC’s most underrated hero. While DC’s cinematic universe, outside of Wonder Woman (2017) has divided fans and critics, Aquaman looks unlike anything else superhero films have offered before. Let’s dive in.

The footage opens on a snowglobe, resting on top of H.P. Lovecraft’s The Dunwich Horror. While it may seem like simple set dressing, the two objects hint at the film’s tone and influences, suggesting both otherworldly fantasy and beauty, alongside extradimensional horror with far-reaching consequences. But before the footage takes us down those paths, it establishes the love story between Queen Atlanna (Nicole Kidman) and lighthouse keeper Tom Curry (Temuera Morrison). Over the decades, Aquaman’s origins have gone through numerous iterations.

When the character debuted in More Fun Comics No. 73 (1941), he was the son of human parents, whose widowed father, a scientist, taught him how to survive underwater while studying Atlantis. In the late '50s, Aquaman’s heritage was rewritten and he became the son of a lighthouse keeper and an outcast from Atlantis. 1989’s The Legend of Aquaman Special, rewrote his Aquaman’s origins yet again, making him the son of Queen Atlanna and the wizard Atlan who was abandoned and then found by the aging lighthouse keeper Arthur Curry, who gave the child his name. 21st century comics have blended these origins together, and the result is the one we see established for the film. Arthur Curry/Aquaman (Jason Momoa) as “a product of love that never should have been” opens up interesting avenues for the character, both as a man of two worlds and one who feels abandoned by a mother and kingdom he never truly got to know. For all the spectacle that’s shown here, the opening scenes serve as a reminder that Aquaman’s story is one of abandonment and inheritance and the reconciliation of the two.

The new footage not only does more to establish Arthur Curry’s place in the world, but also Mera’s (Amber Heard). Don’t mistake her as simply Aquaman’s girlfriend destined to be a damsel in distress. Mera is one of the most powerful and interesting characters in the DC Universe. Just as she’s been a co-lead in Aquaman’s comic since 2011, she’s also said to be the co-lead of the film. With an ability to manipulate water and turn it into weapons, and equipped with the history of one of the world’s greatest civilizations, Mera is shown to not only be a formidable opponent but also able to toe-to-toe with Arthur’s brash personality. Think of Arthur and Mera as DC’s rockstar couple.

While Wan may be primarily known for delivering chills and thrills, he also knows how to create compelling romantic relationships that don’t force either character to lose their sense of agency, as seen in his Conjuring films. Expect the banter between Arthur and Mera to be one of the film’s highlights as they go on a quest that evokes swashbuckling adventures of early cinema and Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). Romance as both a subject and subgenre of summer blockbuster films has largely fallen to the wayside, but between Wonder Woman and what we’ve seen from Aquaman, it seems to be making a comeback in a big way.

What would a quest film be without a fabled object? The object in question in Aquaman is Atlan’s trident, which has the power to unite the worlds of land and sea or create all-encompassing destruction. It’s this trident that Arthur and his half-brother Orm (Patrick Wilson) are both seeking to control. Atlan has long played a role in Aquaman mythos, though his depiction has differed over the years. Geoff Johns dusted off the character — originally an Atlantean wizard — for the New 52 relaunch and made him Aquaman’s ancestor and the greatest king of Atlantis until he was betrayed by his brother Orin who killed Atlan's his wife, children and anyone loyal to him. Taking on the moniker the Dead King, Atlan forged six mystical artifacts, one of which was the trident, and sunk the nation he had led to greatness into the ocean. The film hints at an approach similar to Johns, one that also alludes to T. H. White’s adaptation of Arthurian legend, The Once and Future King, and Arthur’s confrontation with Morgan le Fay. While it has previously been said that Aquaman may take inspiration in its multikingdom conflict from Game of Thrones, John Boorman’s Excalibur (1981) is just as likely a source for Wan’s film to draw its fantastical and thematic influence from.

The highlight of the new footage is a single-take shot that follows Arthur and Mera as they face off against secondary villain Black Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) and his pirates across rooftops. It’s clear from this footage that Wan isn’t only embracing the comic canon, right down to the costumes, but also bringing a unique visual style that feels fresh to the world of superhero cinema. While so much emphasis is placed on these movies being grounded nowadays, Wan looks to go in the opposite direction and really tap into the bold colors and choreographed movement created by comic book artists. Aquaman may appear entirely different from Wan’s early work but it still carries his affinity for signature set pieces and impressive design work.

Aquaman looks like a perfect blend of comic book lore along with a fresh approach to DC’s cinematic universe. The result promises to be much more than another superhero movie.