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Credit: Warner Bros.

Aquaman succeeds by leaning into a very different kind of source material

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Jan 7, 2019, 5:04 PM EST

Comic book adaptations are a tricky business. They obviously make money for movie studios, as evidenced by the four or so different franchises we've had running at any given time over the past decade, but they aren’t easy things to adapt. Writers and directors have to weed through long-standing, often decades-long, backstory that is frequently muddled by the constant universe-altering events that take place fairly regularly at the big two publishers. They have to build a story that not only is accessible to the layperson but also pays plenty of service to the hardcore fans. It’s a nearly impossible task, and, if DC’s most successful (in terms of quality, not box office) adaptations are any indication, the key is to lean into a genre rather than rely too much on the source material.

Don’t get me wrong. Comic book material is still extremely important in terms of setting up the world and creating an ensemble of characters. But when it comes to the narrative at the core of these origin stories, both Wonder Woman and Aquaman spent far less time worrying about strict adherence to those comics, or even to making too many references to elements of those comics, in favor of crafting a story that was, in many ways, extremely familiar with key differences. For Wonder Woman, that meant crafting a war movie, with its bloodshed and struggle and stories of soldiers and honor, but placing a woman at the center and infusing it with mythological story beats.

For Aquaman, well, you all know the story of King Arthur, right?

Aquaman armor hero

Credit: Warner Bros.

The story of Aquaman, the king of Atlantis with power over the seven seas and a telepathic link to creatures under the ocean, has always had elements of your standard sword-and-sorcery tale, but despite this, and despite the fact that the main character is literally named “King Arthur,” the comics never seemed to lean into the massive pantheon of Arthurian mythology, at least as far as my knowledge understands. The movie, though, does just this, crafting a story that tells the admittedly complicated tale of an undersea kingdom and the political struggles therein through a story structure the general public knows very well.

It’s a genius move, really. Aquaman is, to put it frankly, ridiculous. There is a reason the character has been one of DC’s most maligned characters for so long. There’s a lot to unpack within the mythology and world of Atlantis, and it’s much easier to understand it when we hang those pieces on familiar story beats: a king who grew up, for a while anyway, unaware of his birthright; a wise, magical mentor; a mystical weapon only for the worthy; a destiny to combine two disparate worlds to create a greater, more open, more just kingdom — all of these elements exist in both the centuries-old stories of Arthur’s ascension and in the film which hit theaters only a few weeks ago.

Aquaman even manages to create a story centered largely on Arthur’s encounter with the Black Knight, the story that taught Arthur humility, forced him to prove his worth, and brought him to the woman he would eventually marry, who helped inspire him to unite those two worlds (in the movie, the surface and the sea; in the myth, Christians and Pagans).

Perhaps the most impressive element of Aquaman, though, isn’t its CGI or its battle scenes, but the fact that it is one of the few film adaptations of a King Arthur story in which Arthur isn’t either an insufferable whiner or a terrible bore. I’ve written previously about how, despite being one of the most commonly adapted heroes in literature, Arthur himself was never the interesting part of his own story. He’s a very generic hero, usually written either as utterly perfect, which becomes incredibly boring after a while, or endlessly put-upon, burdened by his great destiny — and no one wants to listen to a grown man whine. Instead, we tend to care more about his supporting cast: the knights are the ones who go on all the quests, Lancelot is the romantic hero, Merlin and Morgana are the ones locked in epic magical rivalry.

Aquaman, though, managed to give us an Arthur who was, dare we say it, fun. He was still burdened, certainly. He still didn’t want the destiny or the responsibility thrust upon him. But in creating a character who was, to put it mildly, all bravado and ego and confidence, they gave us an Arthur who actually had a personality. He wasn’t a paragon of goodness or perfect wisened leadership. He was reckless and sometimes incredibly annoying in his strike-first-worry-about-consequences-never attitude, but in leaning into that type of character — and using an actor who oozes charisma — the film was able to infuse their version of King Arthur with something nearly every other adaptation of the character lacks: fun.

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