The heart­warm­ing tale of the bloke who sang, “Come on, Bar­bie, let’s go party.”


tell when the Aqua­man gags started. So hard, in fact, you’d be for­given for think­ing the sub­aquatic DC Comics hero was al­ways

a joke. Around 2012, stop-mo­tion sketch show Ro­bot Chicken started lam­poon­ing him reg­u­larly; at one point Bat­man’s side­kick Robin used his magic tri­dent to clear a blocked toi­let. Bos­ton in­die band The Mo­tion Sick wrote a 2010 song ti­tled ‘Aqua­man’s Lament’, in which the or­ange-and-green-suited crime­fighter lists other su­per­heroes’ fan­tas­tic abil­i­ties be­fore grum­bling,

“I can talk to some fish.” And then there’s En­tourage, HBO’S Hol­ly­wood satire, which in 2005 be­gan spin­ning a long-run­ning, daffy plot line around an Aqua­man movie di­rected by James Cameron.

It’s some­thing Ja­son Mo­moa, re­turn­ing to the role for the third time (af­ter Zack Sny­der’s Bat­man v Su­per­man: Dawn Of Jus­tice and Jus­tice League),

has done his ut­most to ig­nore. “I’m not a big TV dude, so in my free time I’m def­i­nitely not watch­ing En­tourage,”

states the one-time Co­nan and Khal Drogo. And all those other jokes and memes about him hav­ing use­less pow­ers? “Ob­vi­ously, peo­ple made fun, but I’m not in­ter­ested in play­ing to that.” It is not, Em­pire senses, some­thing he’s re­ally into talk­ing about.

How­ever, James Wan, di­rec­tor of the real Aqua­man, feels dif­fer­ently. “Yes, I am fa­mil­iar with En­tourage, and I know Aqua­man has been a joke in the su­per­hero uni­verse,” he tells Em­pire.

“I def­i­nitely went into this know­ing he has that kind of bag­gage. But that, be­lieve it or not, was part of the rea­son I picked this movie.”


to­gether on a stu­pen­dous scale in 2015’s Fu­ri­ous 7, and mak­ing Uni­ver­sal more than $1.5 bil­lion world­wide, Wan could have done any­thing he wanted. He was al­ready fêted for his suc­cess in the hor­ror genre, hav­ing launched the SAW

fran­chise and es­tab­lished his own spooky cin­e­matic uni­verse with the Con­jur­ing

films. “James was of­fered ev­ery­thing un­der the sun,” re­calls Wan’s long-time pro­duc­ing part­ner Peter Safran. “But I re­mem­ber him com­ing in and telling me he wanted to do Aqua­man.”

As the Aus­tralian-malaysian Wan ex­plains, “I’ve al­ways loved telling un­der­dog sto­ries. I’m an un­der­dog my­self. When you come from the hor­ror world, you’re al­ways seen as the bas­tard stepchild and no-one ever takes you

So in a lot of ways I re­ally re­lated to all the goofi­ness that is as­so­ci­ated with Aqua­man. I took it on board. I wanted to take this guy that most peo­ple think is a joke and make him su­per-cool. And when you have Ja­son Mo­moa in the lead, the whole quo­te­un­quote badass thing re­ally comes through on its own, you know?”

On set in July 2017, at Aus­tralia’s Vil­lage Road­show Stu­dios, Mo­moa is shoot­ing scenes with Am­ber Heard, who co-stars as un­der­sea war­rior queen Mera, but there is no gold­fish-or­ange cos­tume or toi­let-un­block­ing tri­dent in sight. The pair are dressed in surf­bum travel gear for a Na­tional Trea­surestyle, puz­zle-solv­ing Macguffin­hunt that’s taken them to some an­cient tem­ple ru­ins in a Si­cil­ian town. Mo­moa comes across less as “badass” than ex­ud­ing a laid­back, rock-star swag­ger. An im­age he un­self­con­sciously mas­sages by strap­ping on a Fender bass gui­tar be­tween takes.

“Ja­son’s kind of rein­vented Aqua­man while still main­tain­ing the integrity of the su­per­hero him­self,” Heard tells us. Or, as Wan reg­u­lar Patrick Wil­son (who plays the hero’s half-brother neme­sis, Orm) puts it, “He’s a com­pletely dif­fer­ent Aqua­man than your Satur­day-morn­ing car­toon guy who rides two dol­phins.”

Mo­moa con­fesses to be­ing sur­prised when Zack Sny­der of­fered him the role way back in the Dawn Of Jus­tice days. “I was per­plexed: ‘You want me to play who?’ I thought he was go­ing to of­fer me a vil­lain,” he says. Aqua­man wasn’t part of the Honolulu-born, Iowa-raised Mo­moa’s comic-book up­bring­ing. He was more a fan of Wolver­ine and the de­monic Spawn. But as he and Sny­der talked, the ap­peal grew and grew.

“Zack wanted an out­law, he wanted some­one who’d punch Su­per­man in the face and just stir the pot. And I think we did a good job in Jus­tice League of play­ing that char­ac­ter. But James has taken it to a whole new level, and it’s got a lit­tle bit more in­ti­mate, a lit­tle bit more vul­ner­a­ble.”

This solo out­ing dives into Aqua­man’s past, ex­plor­ing his ori­gin as the son of a light­house-keeper named Thomas Curry (one-time Jango Fett Te­muera Mor­ri­son) and At­lanna, the queen of At­lantis (Ni­cole Kid­man, who signed on as a fan of Wan). Raised by his dad, he’s a blue-col­lar out­cast with a kingly destiny, one whose myth­i­cal echoes are only em­pha­sised by his real name: Arthur. Yet he’s a re­luc­tant prince, only drawn to the briny depths of At­lantis by a threat to the pol­lu­tion-dump­ing sur­face world from his au­to­cratic sib­ling, Orm. A threat which re­quires him to ally with Mera, who “drives him to the front lines,” as Heard puts it. “She drives him to bat­tle, she en­gages him in this fight.”

Though he bears no phys­i­cal re­sem­blance to the white­bread, blond seal­ife-con­troller of the comics, Mo­moa — who once in­tended to study ma­rine bi­ol­ogy — feels mul­ti­ple points of con­nec­tion. “He’s from one part of the world, has roots in an­other, and he’s fallen be­tween the two. Com­ing from mid­dle Amer­ica and also be­ing born in Hawaii, that’s some­thing I can draw from. And also be­ing raised by a sin­gle par­ent [Mo­moa’s mother, Coni]. So there’s a lot of good things to play with.” Which is why, he once again em­pha­sises, “I’m not in­ter­ested in mak­ing fun of it.”

Even so, dur­ing

Em­pire’s two days on the Aqua­man set, we hear again and again that this movie is all about the fun, and steers clear of the stormy, murky at­mos­phere that hung low over the Sny­der-di­rected movies. “It took the hor­ror guy to bring the light tone to this se­ries,” Wan quips.

While show­ing us around the ex­ten­sive sets, pro­duc­tion de­signer Bill Brzeski de­scribes it as “a ‘blue-sky movie’. It’s pretty, it’s very colour­ful. At­lantis is sup­posed to be a beau­ti­ful place. You’re go­ing to want to go there. It’s like The Lit­tle Mermaid… on steroids.”

We can see what he means. A sunken, bar­na­cle-en­crusted galleon, home to Arthur’s men­tor Vulko (Willem Dafoe) and set­ting for one of the movie’s 18 bat­tle se­quences, looks like the kind of place you’d find a dou­bloon-stuffed chest cir­cled by ham­mer­heads. The streets of the Si­cil­ian town (painstak­ingly based on the real hill­top town of Erice) vir­tu­ally glow un­der the azure heav­ens of Queens­land’s Gold Coast. And our stop-off at a Sa­ha­ran At­lantean forge, a rem­nant of the an­cient cul­ture’s land­lub­bing past com­plete with gi­gan­tic Greco-ro­man stat­ues, brings to mind the dusty haunts of a cer­tain fe­do­rawear­ing ar­chae­ol­o­gist.

Wan de­scribes the film as “an ac­tion-ad­ven­ture road movie where Arthur and Mera go on a re­ally crazy jour­ney to some very stylised and fan­tas­ti­cal worlds.” One that is very much in­spired by the films he en­joyed as a kid. “Ob­vi­ously I loved the movies of Ge­orge Lu­cas and Spiel­berg, and there is a quest here like the quest for the Holy Grail or the Ark Of The Covenant. This movie is my em­brace of all the film­mak­ers I grew up lov­ing; those sort of Spiel­bergse­ri­ously.

in­spired won­der­ment movies from the ’80s. I cre­ate worlds in all my films, even my lit­tle hor­ror films, but with this one I fi­nally get the chance to de­sign some re­ally fan­tas­tic worlds, the kind you’re used to see­ing in Star Wars and Lord Of The Rings.”

In the sprawl­ing sea­world of Aqua­man, At­lantis is merely one of seven wa­tery king­doms. These in­clude the Xe­bel­lian king­dom, lorded over by Dolph Lund­gren as

King Nereus, Mera’s stern fa­ther; the Fish­er­man king­dom, in­hab­ited by mer-peo­ple re­alised via a blend of pros­thet­ics and vis­ual ef­fects; the king­dom of the Brine, dom­i­nated by mon­strous crus­taceans; and Wan’s favourite, the king­dom of the Trench.

“I’ve def­i­nitely in­dulged my Guillermo del Toro pas­sion for cool crea­ture de­sign here,” he says. “Oh man, I’m just go­ing all-out! There’s a lot of ten­ta­cles and webbed crea­tures. It’s my op­por­tu­nity to delve into my love and pas­sion for Love­craft.”

Wan ad­mits that, with its fun­da­men­tal em­pha­sis on vis­ual ef­fects, ev­ery day on Aqua­man has proved “a huge learn­ing curve”. How­ever, he’s in­sisted on build­ing as many sets as pos­si­ble and us­ing prac­ti­cal ef­fects when­ever he can. Some­thing which Heard cer­tainly ap­pre­ci­ates. “While we usu­ally have a lot of green-screen, they’ve also built these in­cred­i­bly im­mac­u­late, im­mense, im­mer­sive sets,” she says. “We have some that are just breath­tak­ing.”

Aqua­man is, As

Brzeski puts it, “about as big as movies get”. If it weren’t enough of a gam­ble to make a su­per­hero fan­tasy epic based on a char­ac­ter who’s a pop-cul­ture punch­line, then the box­of­fice dis­ap­point­ment and crit­i­cal maul­ing of Jus­tice League only makes it feel riskier. But when we catch up with Wan al­most a year to the day af­ter join­ing him on set, he in­sists Jus­tice League’s trou­bles had no pan­icked-re­ac­tion im­pact on his own film.

“I didn’t re­ally have to change any­thing,” he says. “I’m still mak­ing the movie I wanted to make, and the story I’m mak­ing is so far from the world of Jus­tice League.” His en­thu­si­asm for show­ing ev­ery­one what he can achieve with this po­ten­tially slip­pery ma­te­rial re­mains undimmed, not least as the re­views of Jus­tice League were largely kind to Mo­moa, ap­pre­cia­tive of his gruff, oc­ca­sion­ally cheeky charm. With this film, Wan hopes to build on that good­will.

“We all know he can play the big, tough guy. But what I want to show the rest of the world is this guy is funny, very quick-wit­ted, with a great sense of hu­mour. And that all comes back to my in­spi­ra­tions: films like Ro­manc­ing The Stone, and there’s even shades of Kurt Rus­sell’s char­ac­ter Jack Bur­ton, from Big Trou­ble In Lit­tle China. A bit of a goof­ball, but his heart is in the right place.”

When we later men­tion this to Mo­moa he thaws a lit­tle on the ‘joke char­ac­ter’ per­spec­tive. “James has a good sense of hu­mour about it, and we do poke at it,” he ad­mits. “There’s a lit­tle more twin­kle in my eye in this film. I’m a lit­tle more rascally, maybe.” He’s also amused when Em­pire tells him that in the En­tourage uni­verse, the joke was ul­ti­mately on ev­ery­one else when Aqua­man be­came the high­est-gross­ing movie of all time. “That’s hi­lar­i­ous!” he laughs. Even if Wan’s real-world ver­sion doesn’t man­age that, Mo­moa is cer­tain of one thing, at least: “Af­ter this, I don’t think peo­ple will be mak­ing fun of me any­more.”

Top: Willem Dafoe as Vulko; Di­rec­tor James Wan on set. Mid­dle: Aqua­man (Ja­son Mo­moa) takes on Orm (Patrick Wil­son); Yahya Ab­dul-ma­teen II as the ne­far­i­ous Black Manta.

Bot­tom left: Orm re­vealed; Am­ber Heard as war­rior queen Mera. Here: Mo­moa’s rock-star take on Aqua­man.

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