“What could be greater than a king? A hero.”
The first Aquaman trailer was unveiled in July, and warmly received by fans. And while the movie hasn’t had to operate under a Star Wars-esque veil of secrecy, Warner Bros. has still done a remarkable job keeping many details of the film under wraps. But lest you think they’re hiding anything, we have details on three key scenes from the film, which were screened for reporters by director James Wan. While much of the footage was still a work in progress, it drove home many of the key takeaways from that first trailer, from the high adventure tone to the film’s color pallette to its sense of humor.
Aquaman’s origin story wasn’t explored in Justice League. What we got was an indication that Arthur Curry was connected to the lost civilization of Atlantis but unwilling to fully embrace his heritage or destiny. While Aquaman isn’t a prequel to Justice League, it opens with a prologue that fills in some of the gaps in Arthur’s history. Key to this is how a human lighthouse keeper fell in love with a powerful Atlantean woman, and how their union brings forth Arthur Joseph Curry: Aquaman.
Wan promises that the love story between Arthur’s parents, Queen Atlanna (Nicole Kidman) and Tom Curry (Temuera Morrison), provides “the emotional backbone” of Aquaman and “it follows [Arthur] for the rest of the movie.” That love story begins when lighthouse keeper Tom Curry finds a mysterious, wounded woman on his shores, and nurses her back to health.
The version of the film’s prologue that I saw looks to impart the same mythic quality to the legend of Aquaman as audiences associate with that of the oft-told Superman, Batman, or Spider-Man origin tales. And as is appropriate for the story of the Queen of a lost civilization falling in love with an ordinary man, there’s a fairy tale glow to the proceedings early on. The wicked storm and unsettled sea that arrives with Atlanna nods to Wan’s spooky, horror movie roots – as does a copy of HP Lovecraft’s The Dunwich Horror prominently displayed inside the Curry home – but after that, there’s a nostalgic vibe that feels appropriate for its era (a title card identifies the prologue as taking place in 1985).
“Even though it’s a superhero character, my approach to Aquaman has not been as a superhero film,” Wan says. “I really wanted more of a fantasy approach to it. I pulled influences from stuff that inspired me, from classic Ray Harryhausen to early Steven Spielberg and Romancing the Stone. The really cool thing is that this property really allowed me to take a stab at all of these different sorts of flavors…and use the mythology and lore of Aquaman to pull it all together.”
Elements of the touchstones Wan casually names here were all on display in the Aquaman footage I saw. The Amblin-esque quality continues to play out during the origin prologue, as a confused Atlanna (who only speaks Atlantean at first) adjusts to her unfamiliar surroundings. Key to her story is how she fled an arranged marriage in Atlantis, but is clearly haunted by the knowledge she will have to return to her royal duties. Eventually Atlantean soldiers (who look like modern offshoots of Star Wars stormtroopers filtered through elements of Tron) force that decision, leading to a terrific close-quarters brawl. Lest anyone wonder about just how powerful one has to be if you’re going to be defined as Atlantean royalty, it doesn’t go well for several of them, and it’s a lot of fun watching Kidman cut loose in an action scene. And that fight is just an appetizer for what’s to come.
While the prologue is far from a complete Aquaman origin story, it sets up the movie’s key conflict between Arthur and his half-brother, Orm (Patrick Wilson), who he’ll have to go through in order to embrace his destiny. Orm is the current monarch of Atlantis, and (like many Atlanteans) doesn’t have much time for surface dwellers. “King Orm is sick and tired of our shit and finally wants to deal with that,” Wan says. “But Arthur is trying to stop his brother and the only way he can do that is to try to reclaim the throne. But as you can imagine, Orm is not going to give it up so easily.”
While we’re sure to get plenty of Arthur-on-Orm action over the course of the movie, the scene (glimpsed in the first trailer) where they confront each other in an Atlantean arena is the best indication so far of how fights, the unique challenge of crafting battles that take place underwater, and the power levels of Atlanteans will play on screen. Even with Wan cautioning that the effects throughout are a work in progress, it’s still a unique, colorful, impressive few minutes, which starts by playing up the differences between Orm and Arthur (Orm is something of a pompous stiff, albeit not a mustache-twirling supervillain, while Arthur is still the wry, somewhat reluctant hero glimpsed in Justice League) before expanding into an underwater arena duel.
“The biggest directive I had from the stunt department was to make sure that it was a fight sequence that we’ve never seen before,” Wan says. “Like a classic sword fight but with tridents, but transported to this environment it has a different look and feel visually, and how the characters move informs the choreography.”
That fight choreography presented its own challenges. “At first we took baby steps, designing the fight on flat ground, and then taking it to the next level by bringing wire into the equation, and then visual effects come in and take it to a completely different level,” Wan says. “VFX is doing all of the environment anyway, but we start with practical, real stunts with stunt guys laying out the action.”
The scene is a lot of fun, with Orm greeted as a conquering champion by an assemblage of hundreds of Atlantean subjects, while Arthur is booed like a wrestling heel as he makes his entrance. The battle between Arthur and Orm can barely be contained by that arena, and they fight with all the freedom a full 360 degree range of motion allows, and it’s a fast-paced, imaginatively staged battle. The unique environment, the presence of a colorful crowd of different Atlantean races, and of course the super-powered action, feels fresh in the (relatively) grounded DCEU.
The arena itself is known as the “Ring of Fire,” so named because it’s actually built into the cone of an active volcano. Little touches like that help spotlight Wan’s broader worldbuilding ambitions for the movie, who jokes that Aquaman finally gives him the budget to indulge in the intricate worldbuilding he has longed to do. Man of Steel, the first of the current DCEU movies, succeeded in making Krypton feel like a truly ancient world during its few minutes of screentime. With Atlantis, Wan promises that visual choices weren’t just made because they look cool. “When ancient Atlantis sank they grew and built new Atlantis on top of it,” Wan says. “Structurally, I’ve had to think how construction under water would look. There would be no steel or wood.”
Even in the relative darkness of the deep ocean, the footage is colorful, with the ominous orange light of the Ring of Fire contrasting with the deep blues and greens of the ocean. In fact, in all of the scenes shown to reporters, the overall approach to light and color is more like the first half of Wonder Woman than the more muted tones of Batman v Superman or Suicide Squad. This initial conflict between Orm and Arthur clearly has ramifications for the future of the Throne of Atlantis, as it’s important enough for Mera (Amber Heard) and her father, Nereus (Dolph Lundgren) to watch with interest.
“Even though Atlantis is a civilization that is underwater and has been that way for hundreds of years, they’re very technologically and socially advanced but in some ways they’re still archaic,” Wan says, referring to things like their monarchy and still relying on trial by combat “They have a rigid way of looking at things.”
The difference between human and Atlantean perspectives is on display in the interactions between Mera and Arthur. One scene in particular sees Momoa and Heard searching for the “Kingdom of the Deserters,” in the last place you’d expect to find any Atlanteans: a desert. Their banter, flirtatious and otherwise, recalls Indiana Jones and Marion Ravenwood or, perhaps more accurately, Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner in Wan’s oft-mentioned Romancing the Stone. But here, the difference is how Mera is the more experienced adventurer, often exasperated with Arthur’s affinity for the surface world, even as Arthur makes the case for its charms. “Arthur is the fish out of water when he’s in Atlantis and Mera is the fish out of water when she is in the surface world,” Wan says. “So they kind of have to work together and get along, but things are weird…and that’s where the fun comes from and I try to lean into that heavily.”
And it’s in this scene that the “early Spielberg” vibe returns in force, as a wrong step finds the pair in a massive underground chamber full of bizarre, ancient Atlantean treasure and artifacts. The desert scene seems to follow directly from the parachute-less airplane jump glimpsed in the first trailer, and this, along with a breakneck rooftop chase and fight between Arthur and Mera and Black Manta and his soldiers from elsewhere in the film, recall the pacing of Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Wan admits that finding the right tone for Aquaman was something of a challenge. “We wanted to stay true to the tone of an action swashbuckling adventure,” he says. “It allows me to be a bit more popcorny but also allows me to lean into something more scary, because the story and that world lends itself to a lot of different flavors. This movie lets me lean into some far off concepts and I try to pull inspirations and designs and visual cues from the world that it’s supposed to be from.”
Aquaman may turn out to be a quest movie, with Arthur and Mera’s arrival in the Kingdom of the Deserters as just one stop on their journey through the seven kingdoms of Atlantis, which also includes the giant crustacean-like Brine, the terrifying Trench, and others. Fans may remember that the first official image of Jason Momoa as Aquaman, back during the filming of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice in 2015, was emblazoned with the words “Unite the Seven.” Initially assumed to be a reference to members of the Justice League, we now know it refers to Arthur’s journey to becoming King of Atlantis.
“The film begins where he left off in Justice League, and the movie ends in a very different place from where it started,” Wan says. “If Arthur is going to be the king of these people, he needs to understand his subjects and he needs to know who all of these people are.”
Along with all the cinematic touchstones that inspired moments of the film, it’s easy to see the influences of recent Aquaman comics in the footage, too, with Wan admitting he’s a “big fan” of the work of Geoff Johns and Ivan Reis. But Wan, ever aware of the prevailing attitude about Aquaman in popular culture, also did his homework, and there are fun nods to earlier, even sillier elements and characters in Aquaman history…but I won’t spoil any of them here. “I’m not going to shy away from that, i’m going to embrace it and do my own version of it,” Wan says. “I love that retro quality that the original comic book had and the really fun characters.”
If these three scenes are anything to go by, the big screen version of Aquaman has something of a “retro quality” of its own, albeit one that calls back to some of the magical adventure movies of the 1980s. If the film can maintain this throughout its running time, then it will certainly be something we haven’t seen before in modern superhero movies. We’ll find out when Aquaman opens on December 21.