THE CHARACTER HAS LONG BEEN A KELP-DRAPED JOKE. BUT DIRECTOR JAMES WAN AND STAR JASON MOMOA ARE DETERMINED TO TURN AQUAMAN INTO A FANTASY EPIC THE WORLD TAKES SERIOUSLY
The heartwarming tale of the bloke who sang, “Come on, Barbie, let’s go party.”
IT’S HARD TO
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.”
AFTER SMASHING CARS
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.