AQUAMAN made a smart choice to not take itself so seriously. After all, this is the DC superhero whose tenure on SUPER FRIENDS left him in a near-constant identity crisis with pop culture. Four decades later and DC writers are still trying to not make Aquaman appear “useless,” mainly through various degrees of edginess. So having Jason ‘Khal Drogo’ Momoa play Aquaman in the DCEU probably sent the wrong message at first glance.

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Jason Momoa’s Aquaman, Courtesy of Warner Bros

And yet my screening of AQUAMAN turned out to be a lot of cheesy, over the top fun. It invokes a live-action 80’s cartoon tone that’s big and weird, but never to the point of self-parody. Oh, sure there’s a plot concerning our hero thwarting his half-brother Orm/Ocean Master from waging war against humanity for our decades of excessive oceanic pollution. But it’s also about an underwater culture that uses armored seahorses and an octopus playing war drums during the sporting events. There’s just the right amount of self-awareness to balance out AQUAMAN’s melodrama with jabs at its inherent goofiness.

While watching it, however, I couldn’t help but notice similarities about another superhero film with a slightly similar plot: BLACK PANTHER. A fictional world with its own unique culture and futuristic tech- check. The protagonist of royalty who must accept his destiny as a king due to the ongoing conflict- check. BLACK PANTHER is Conflict-driven by previous generations that left a lasting implication on certain character’s worldviews. Check, check, check. And yet these two films aren’t quite carbon copies of one another.

Warning: Spoilers for AQUAMAN and BLACK PANTHER below

Long Live the Kings

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Chadwick Boseman as T’Challa, Courtesy of Marvel Studios

Both Arthur Curry and T’Challa assumed leadership roles when neither character saw themselves as ready to lead. T’Challa assumed the title of King and Black Panther after his father died in CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR, inadvertently putting Wakanda’s future in his hands. This meant becoming the deciding voice on whether Wakanda would continue its isolationism or open its doors to the outside world. In this respect, T’Challa served as the focal point for various philosophical decisions as he grew into the role of a superhero.

AQUAMAN, by comparison, isn’t that committed to these themes. Despite being aware of his mother’s Atlantean heritage, Arthur Curry holds stronger ties to the surface world over Atlantis. Why should he bare allegiance to a Kingdom that rejected him and seemingly killed his mother over his birth? So when he learns about Orm’s (i.e. Ocean Master) plans to invade humanity, the film becomes about Arthur’s personal involvement, rather than an analysis of Atlantis’ socio-political desires.

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Arthur Curry and Mera, Courtesy of Warner Bros.

While T’Challa is fully Wakandan, Arthur’s mixed descent lets him see the good and bad of both cultures. Even though his ascendence could prevent war, Arthur intuitively notes that he probably isn’t the best man for the job. As their respective conflicts escalate, however, both characters must accept responsibility outside the birthrights of their lineage’s status quo. Namely, T’Challa calls out his father’s past misdeeds in the name of Wakanda’s secrecy and Arthur steps up as a leader with a different vision for Atlantis’ future.

Aquamonger?

It’s ironic that, despite the narrative comparisons, Aquaman’s characterization has more in common with BLACK PANTHER’s villain than its hero. Like Arthur, Eric Stevens/N’Jadaka (i.e. Killmonger) is an exile unable to integrate with either his American or Wakandan identity. A child of two worlds, he blamed the non-American culture for the tragedies that befell his father and the world. This alienation drove his pursuit of the Wakandan throne and desire to right past historical wrongs, albeit by revolutionary force.

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Michael B. Jordan as Killmonger, Courtesy of Marvel Studios

The big difference between Arthur and Killmonger, however, lies with how this outsider status influenced their upbringing. Although Arthur resents what Atlantis did to him and his mother, he is not driven by revenge. If anything, his flashbacks training with Atlantean counselor Vulko suggests that Arthur wanted to connect with his mother’s heritage at one point. And unlike Killmonger, Arthur’s father is still alive, thereby giving him something to lose if a war breaks out. War, to Aquaman, means a senseless attack on innocent lives with no conscious reason to hate Atlantis.

Killmonger, by comparison, shows no emotional attachment to Wakanda in adulthood beyond his father’s stories. He might desire its resources, but Wakanda’s people represent a means to an end than a second home. The same applies to his views on Wakandan customs, as they allowed racial injustices to go unopposed across the globe. Revolution, in Killmonger’s eyes, means formulating a new world where neither he nor other people of color felt like cultural outsiders. He understands the path to creating a different future- it’s Wakanda’s ways that were outdated by comparison.

Aquaman’s Underwater Rogues

Although Aquaman’s outsider status mirrors Killmonger, the latter’s desire for war and revenge is more reflective in AQUAMAN’s two antagonists. In Black Manta, we have mercenary/pirate David Kane seeking vengeance on Arthur for leaving his own father to die. It’s the motivation that, like Killmonger and CIVIL WAR T’Challa’s arcs, stems from a lineage of sons avenging their parents. Presumably, a sequel will provide more insight into Black Manta’s character and motivations beyond wanting Aquaman dead.

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Black Manta and Aquaman, Courtesy of Warner Bros.

The more personal of the two, however, is Orm/Ocean Master, whose motives are a combination of T’Challa and Killmonger. Like T’Challa, he’s next in line for the Atlantean throne but challenged by an outsider relative. Like Killmonger, Orm’s rationale for war is understandable, blaming humanity’s pollution and excessive militarization of the seas for threatening Atlantean safety. However, given AQUAMAN’s narrative focus on Arthur’s actions, we never really see enough of Atlantis to validate Orm’s justification.

For the most part, he’s doing it because war will gain him control over the Seven Kingdoms. What is unique is Arthur and Orm’s shared grievances for their mother Atlanna. Where Arthur blamed Atlantis, Orm blamed Arthur for being the catalyst behind his mother’s senseless sacrifice to the Trench. After reuniting with his mom in the third act, however, Arthur finally embraces his non-human identity in order to become a true heir and leader.

Patrick Wilson as Orm/Ocean Master, Courtesy of Warner Bros.

Likewise, upon seeing their mother alive during their final battle, Orm loses his will to fight and surrenders. Arthur, in turn, offers Orm a pseudo-act of forgiveness with the line “when you’re ready, let’s talk.” Compared to T’Challa and Killmonger’s conflict, he has a chance to make peace with his family and put aside their old grudges.

Atlantis Forever

So is AQUAMAN simply BLACK PANTHER underwater? No, and I doubt it intended on doing so, especially since both films began production around the same time. They just happened to involve similar narratives where an outsider and a king with family ties fight over an advanced hidden nation’s future. It’s how the films frame their respective outcast characters that the plots diverge. This version of Aquaman shares an origin much like BLACK PANTHER’s villain but his motives are closer to its hero.

As the star-crossed product of two different cultures, his arc is about accepting both heritages to become a stronger leader. It’s a film where the physically imposing, bearded, tattooed male hero actually sits down and contemplates his inner pain. Both stories are reminiscent of Hamlet, after all. At least, if Hamlet featured afro-futuristic aircraft or war-seahorses.

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