A little more than a decade ago, Aquaman was a punch line — a phony blockbuster for a phony movie star on the television show Entourage. Even as another member of the future DC Extended Universe, Batman, was virtually redefining the way audiences looked at superheroes on the silver screen, the half-man, half-Atlantean Arthur Curry was far from ready to be taken seriously. This week, that changes with Aquaman, a film that simultaneously condenses decades of mythology and demolishes expectations to create a rousing, Shakespearean adventure that in a delightful metatextual twist transforms the title character from a goof into one of the great, distinctive heroes of comicdom.
Just days before the film opened in theaters worldwide, SYFY WIRE sat down with three of the film’s writers — Geoff Johns, David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick, and Will Beall — for an enlightening conversation about the process of bringing Aquaman’s origin story to life. In addition to remembering their own travails as they took on the challenge of redeeming the character from decades of dismissive, sniggering takes, the trio talked about what inspired their big-screen story, worked through the often admittedly comical mechanics of living in an underwater world, and contemplated the larger journey they took to lend the character the seriousness he deserves, and establish him as a superhero whose cinematic future stretches out far beyond the horizon.
Talk about the Sisyphean task of going back and condensing all this mythology into something that is comprehensible but also feeds into what audiences already know about this character from the previous DC movies.
Will Beall: He'd done a lot of the heavy lifting already on.
Geoff Johns: I’d done a lot of the work revamping it with New 52 in 2011 and really distilling it down to the concept we got through the film, which is the son of the queen of Atlantis and a lighthouse keeper. He’s a man who feels because he's from two worlds he’s from no world. I think in animation and comic books, for a long time people thought he just talks to fish, which he does in the movie very well, and that he’s an out-of-play superhero.
And by taking that viewpoint I think a lot of people have on the character and making it part of his emotional journey was really key, then add in the mythology, the Seven Seas and the Shakespearean side of his brother being a full Atlantean. And King Orm and Arthur both have a simplistic view of another culture that is far away and mysterious and maybe perceived as dangerous or as antagonistic at the very least. That core emotional concept of him going from someone who thinks he has no home and he has no one to learning that because he is of two worlds and two cultures that he is actually the best bridge, a living bridge between land and sea. That was the goal of the comic books and the 25 issues that I wrote and that spine carried through into the film.
David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick: You have this vast treasure trove of history and different takes, and you're talking about the task of figuring out what you're going to do. In New 52, that arc, the "Throne of Atlantis," was this great little slice that you allowed you to focus in, and then sprinkle in where appropriate hat tips to the old versions of him, or to get the bongo-playing octopus in there, Topo. To fill it out with some of the things from the character's history or thought it was really fun.
Johns: Some of the core characters, like Mera or Black Manta, you had to keep those core iconic characters in there because people don't really know that Black Manta is his coolest villain, and Oceanmaster is his coolest villain, or second coolest. It's a distilling, but you’ve got to when you look at these characters do it from an emotional point of view and a conceptual point of view. Because a guy who swims and talks to fish is cool, but how do you make that relatable and how do you make that a story? And it's all in there. I call it panning for gold, because there are so many comics and there are bad Aquaman comics too.
But, you’ve got to just kind of figure it out. In the first very first Aquaman comic, he was actually experimented on by his dad so he could breathe underwater. It was a totally different concept. And then they revamped it in Showcase comics and it's been revamped over the years. At one point Oceanmaster was his human half-brother, and it wasn't as interesting because then he's yet another human villain. And by making him full Atlantean and making Black Manta and Oceanmaster operate as the dark side of both of his halves, that made Oceanmaster a better character.
How much of the sort of logistics of Atlantis and the underwater world do you guys have to figure out just to provide Director James Wan with a bible to go, "this is how people breathe or go to the bathroom" — addressing the mundane ideas that would be taken for granted if this all took place on land?
Beall: I remember talking early on about the idea that it was an advanced civilization, but all of our civilization is all about fire, and they wouldn't have that. So that's where you guys see the phosphorescent jellyfish and the fusion-like plasma stuff--
Johns: We talked about cold fusion a lot.
Beall: A lot! And I do remember discussions about going potty.
Johns: There was a joke in there where it’s a restroom, he goes in, he comes out, and he goes, “how do you use it?” I think it was in an early draft and it fell out pretty early, but we did have conversations with James about how they talk underwater, and James was very adamant upfront that he just wanted to make it very, very simple. He wanted to have scenes underwater where they could talk to each other and there wouldn't be a huge mechanical issue behind that. He wanted it to look more like The Hunt for Red October where they’re speaking Russian and then suddenly they're speaking English and you just can enjoy the story for what it is.
Beall: In Justice League, they make a bubble and he was like, nuts to that. Which I think was smart, was really smart.
Johns: He said, I want to be able to have clean scenes with characters talking underwater and that's just the way it is. There is that one line when he's like, “I can talk underwater?” And you're like, yeah, It’s a superpower!
Beall: We all bought into Aquaman.
Johns: And I also think there’s something really interesting about the slight reverb you can hear when Nereus and Orm first start talking in that citadel, and it slowly goes away. But I thought that was really smart of James.
Johnson-McCormack: For me, my dork explanation was we make sounds by exhaling air over our vocal cords. So why, if you're breathing water, couldn't you make sound by exhaling water over your vocal cords? And, water conducts sound better than air anyway, so maybe you've got reverb and you can just talk.
Aquaman’s style of heroism isn’t quite fully formed at the beginning of this movie - so much so that he later admits he made a mistake in stopping a criminal. Can you talk about that moment of vulnerability and him having that opportunity for personal growth?
Johnson-McGoldrick: One of the things that was interesting about this movie is that Aquaman was introduced in Justice League, and then this is his first movie, so maybe you can do an origin of how he became a hero. Because when you start off with Aquaman in this movie, he's walking the walk but his heart's not in it, and he’s emotionally unfinished. He's not really any better than one of us.
Johns: He’s a bit of a wanderer.
Johnson-McGoldrick: But, when he lets [spoiler] die, you go, “well, they were bad guys!” You almost understand his decision, where you’re like, screw these guys. But then the realization he has, later on, is that maybe any one of us could have made that decision, but in order to be the hero, he's got to be better than any one of us. And that realization is part of his origin, so when he comes out of the waterfall, he's actually Aquaman with a capital "A," in the orange and green and sort of fully realized as a hero.
Beall: One of the things I love about this version of the character that is at least for me super relatable is that he's an immature guy, sort of a boorish party guy who gets his s**t together for a good woman. That’s probably a lot of our stories. Because I certainly felt that way in his initial encounter, like "f*k you — you just killed all of those people!” But he's not going to get there without Mera. She makes him better than he was.
What are your feelings about the superhero movie explosion that in ten years turned Aquaman from a joke on Entourage to this epic adventure?
Beall: I don't know if I ever told you guys this, but in 2014 or something, [my agent] calls and goes, “fasten your seatbelt, Will. I got the assignment for you, but I can't tell you what it is. I came home to my wife and was like, “they’re giving me Batman!” I was stockpiling comics. I knew exactly what I was going to do with Batman. And then he sends me a text with a picture of Aquaman. And I was like, "oh, f**k!" Because at that point I had not read "Throne of Atlantis" yet. So I think I had the reaction that probably a lot of the world did, like, "wait - you’re really going to do Aquaman?" And, I remember being in meetings and people would be like, “what are you working on?” And I’d go "I'm working on Aquaman" and they would laugh.
Johns: That's what they said to me when I wrote the book, because in this big relaunch, I said I wanted to do Aquaman. And, people said to me in comics, "why are you going to waste your time with Aquaman?" But Aquaman was kind of the creme de la creme of those geek jewels, and I've always loved the character and I saw the potential in a lot of the stories, and I wanted to go kind of neoclassic on it and bring back Mera, who’s kind of a forgotten character from the sixties. But people had an attitude about Aquaman.
Notwithstanding what you guys actually have in development for a sequel, what sense of relief or gratification is there that you have now gotten the world-building out of the way so that you can tell different stories instead of having to explain all of the mythology?
Johns: It’s great that James had that appetite and obviously the talent to be able to do it right, because visually this movie is insane. The way he envisioned the trench and all of these other kingdoms and Aquaman and Atlantis itself, I think it’s great that everyone worked together to create a story that was beautiful and established it all, but a story that was simple and direct and ultimately you built the foundation and now can go in so many different directions. There’s a lot of gratification for it to happen. But it's really James’ appetite that allowed it to happen.
Beall: I feel like this is sort of the movie he was born to do. I still remember sitting in the conference room next to your office with you and James, and they're talking through scenes and I've never experienced this, where he actually acts them out. I mean, he's a little dude, and I still remember he stands up and he's got the trident, and he’s like, “the energy comes out here,” and I was like, I got it! And then you see it in the movie.
Johns: He could have done anything. James got to pick anything, and I was there, and he said, “I pick Aquaman.” I was like, "cool! Finally, somebody else likes the character."