Tuesday, July 2, 2013

King of the Seven Seas: Hooks for the Aquaman Movie

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Whatever peoples' misgivings about Man of Steel, it's made a lot of money, and the Marvel Studios model has made very much more money. Warner Brothers wants to cash in, and recent reports suggest they're looking into doing so with Wonder Woman and Aquaman. Now, I'm a fan of the Sea King, but I'm not sure this is the right time for a solo motion picture. Like Green Lantern, Aquaman is popular in comics currently, but that doesn't translate into a public demand. I believe people actively want the DC Trinity in cinemas, whereas Green Lantern had to be sold to the public in 2011, and the result was at best breaking even on the budget. Aquaman is a better known property, but that familiarity comes in part from being an easy punchline, and the property as a whole is more problematic a transition to live action. I think the failed Mercy Reef pilot did a decent job of cracking the Aquaman story for general audiences, but an "alien" refugee on our world hunted by his own people was already used in Man of Steel, so writers need to start from scratch with Aquaman. I have some suggestions on how to go about that...

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1. Royalty is unsympathetic.

Superman is already the messianic Aryan figure sent by a heavenly father to lead mankind by his glorious example and willingness to level a populated area if it gets in his way. Wonder Woman as an Amazon princess is also a given. If Marvel get around to doing the Sub-Mariner, his regal bearing is an integral part of his character, and ditto Black Panther. In the United States, rebels are valued a lot more than kings, and I'm not too sure the monarchy is all that popular abroad anymore.

Aquaman managed to last a couple of decades in comics before being crowned a Sea King, and to some degree it dropped off his head and hung around his throat. Aquaman's recent return to popularity can be partially credited to his being treated as a more straight-ahead super-hero in a conventional costume with a bit of an attitude problem, making him an edgier, angrier protagonist. Regardless of the Nolan-y title of this piece, we should see less King Arthur and more Robin Hood if Aquaman means to stand out in the company of the JLA.

2. The right origin can be very sympathetic.

In his first origin, Arthur Curry was a surface dweller whose scientist father injected him with some Atlantean goo that gave him his powers. In the Silver Age, Arthur was raised in a lighthouse by his normal father after losing his Atlantean mother, and his resentful stepbrother grew up to become Ocean Master. Haven't we had enough of super-heroes being defined by their daddies, surrogate or otherwise? Jor-El, Pa Kent, Uncle Ben, Alfred... it's played out patriarchy.

Personally, I think Aquaman needs more of his Post-Crisis origin to make a dent cinematically. Leave out the Atlan part and just have Aquaman born with some ominous physical aspect among a merciless, superstitious people. Go back to Mercy Reef and see this infant left to die for the sin of being different, only to miraculously survive due to genetic variances known to turn up in the royal family and a mystical destiny to be revealed later. Do the whole Tarzan of the Dolphins thing, with Aquaman raised as a noble savage, belonging to no people while forced to confront all of them. I'm telling you, the girls hearts will go out to him and the boys will respect him as an embattled loner. He'll go from a spare smelly Superman to the team's Spider-Man or Wolverine without compromising the character.

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3. Steve McQueen > James Dean.

What DC needs on the Justice League is a wild card... a bad boy with heavenly looks. The role of smirking anti-authoritarian ladies' man is more predictably applied to Green Arrow, but for television that character has returned to his roots as a Batman stand-in, which has worked for an established audience. Aquaman may not be allowed to be jubilant and grin unironically, but the next best thing would be a troubled loner covering for his private pain with a smirk and a bit of flippancy. The DC heroic pantheon suffers from an excess of self-centered pathos on a textured sleeve between the movie Superman and Batman. As heartening as it may be to see the financial success of Man of Steel, it'll still run a distant second to Iron Man 3 at the box office. The Justice League could use some Tony Stark mojo. Let Aquaman be the cool, fun, enthusiastic, "outrageous" alternative to three dour Captain Americas in the DC Trinity. If he must be a king, make him a reluctant, defiant, progressive one.

4. We don't need a four-color family.

You know what I dread the most about Superman movies? The obligatory presence of Lois Lane, Jimmy Olsen, Perry White, and sometimes Lex Luthor, all hanging out at the Daily Planet. It's one thing if a creator really needs some of those characters to tell a story (even if it was as unfortunate as babymama Lois in Superman Returns,) but quite another when you're sticking Margot Kidder in Superman IV: The Quest for Peace where she doesn't belong. A selling point for Smallville was that it featured underrepresented classic characters like Lana Lang and Pete Ross, new takes on relationships like Clark & Lex's, and the breakout character was still the wholly invented Chloe Sullivan.

I think steering clear of an extended Batman Family has only helped that franchise's vitality. Focusing on the always agreeable Alfred, offering supporting roles to guys like Lucius Fox, altering cinematic relations with the likes of Harvey Dent and providing closed arcs for key inventions like Rachel Dawes all bolstered the Dark Knight after Robin and Batgirl weighed the guy down. With the exception of Mercy Reef, every Aquaman to cross over into the media has been shown as a mid-career family man, the adventures of AquaDad. Save rescuing and mentoring Garth for later films. Let Mera come along when the franchise needs a reboot. For now, make an Aquaman movie work unhindered by add-ons and allow the screenwriters the room to plot a course for their own supporting cast that does not require biblical fidelity to past representations.

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5. Who to punch? Who? To? Punch?

Aquaman has exactly two villains, Black Manta and Ocean Master. One is basically the Darth Vader of the deep, but a lot of his rep came from murdering Aquaman's son. His most recent origin is very similar to how things played out between Jor-El and General Zod in Man of Steel, and it requires going back to Aquaman having daddy issues that will make him derivative cinematically. Black Manta is your Joker... your Mandarin... an ace in the whole to hype a sequel. Wait until there's room for a better, filmic origin story to tell about him.

Option #2 is Ocean Master, who isn't very interesting, doesn't have a fraction of Manta's fan base, and meanders into the same patriarchal concerns. If you want to use him, make Orm either Aquaman's father or further estranged brother. Maybe he thrived in Atlantis in Aquaman's lifelong absence while practicing ancient, evil magic that may have tied into our hero's "affliction" and very late term attempted abortion. At least that would be a twist on samey-same cinema. Alternately, have his mother be the evil sorceress, to further shift the script away from well trod ground.

Evil king, evil queen-- it puts Aquaman in the right position to be a populist hero instead of snooty noblesse oblige to be resented. Let Aquaman overthrow a monarch instead of serving as one. Maybe he even brings democracy to the sea as a rebel leader, and objects to Superman's more overbearing, unilateral approach to heroics? If the Atlanteans are as big a bunch of ignorant stubborn jerks as they are portrayed in the comics, you create a whole new conflict where Aquaman is forced to look after their obvious best interests in opposition of their loudly protested wishes.

Of course, Atlantis & magic equals an effects budget along the lines of Green Lantern, which should be saved for when it's been earned. In a first film, there's plenty enough story in the origin and development of Aquaman as a hero of two worlds without literally rendering one of them in full CGI glory at feature length. Let Aquaman save surface dwellers from horrors out of the deep like the Trench, which could blend practical and digital effects with a Cormanesque economic use of shadows to keep costs down and tension up. If Aquaman can't come across to audiences on his own, Black Manta and Ocean Master will be about as much help as Mark Strong's Sinestro or John Malkovich's Quentin Turnbull.

5. Be funny. Be scary. Be different.

Is Nolan's Batman is Coca-Cola Classic and Snyder's Superman is (let's be honest) Diet Coke, don't treat Aquaman like Royal Crown. Aquaman has brand recognition, but not a rigidly defined formula, so Do the Dew with the dude. Dark fantasy is big right now, so go all Game of Thrones with Atlantis, or focus on scary sea creatures like The Host or Aliens. Pillage the Marvel movie feel by allowing Aquaman to have fun as a hero, or the Sony scene of heavier soapy romantic elements. Don't borrow from Fox, because you've got enough problems. The heavy hand of the Nolan aesthetic would suffocate Aquaman, and viewers will resent it for not being another entry in the Superman/Batman series. The pedestrian hand of the Green Lantern crew would fare even worse by pleasing no one. A project isn't visionary if it's the same vision recycled since 2005, so find a creative team with something fresh to say about super-heroes while still honoring Aquaman's strengths and gelling with the DC cinematic universe.

If Nicolas Winding Refn and Ryan Gosling are looking to reteam for a more commercial project than their norm, take a chance. If Wes Anderson wants to get all quirky and twee with Paul Dano, give it some thought. Who else is up for David O. Russell and Bradley Cooper offering oceanic adventure as serio-comic commentary on self-determination vs. social obligation? If David Cronenberg and Viggo Mortensen have an angle completely out of left field, it's worth considering for Aquaman. If the super-hero genre can't be expanded, and more adaptable heroes like Aquaman can't be used to push those boundaries, the countdown begins on the death of a fad. Give the Sea King an opportunity to rule.

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