The Aquaman movie continues to build its casts one by one, with Dolph Lundgren as ‘King Nereus’ the latest addition – an inclusion that suggests the movie will, as expected, be building off of the aquatic hero’s acclaimed New 52 reboot. But as compelling a subplot as King Nereus’s rivalry with Aquaman may be – if presented as carefully as we know director James Wan is capable of – the actors now in place to bring its blend of competition and romance to life raise some… uncommon questions to superhero movie fans.
Not “unfortunate” due to the actor’s abilities, nor how suitable they are to the parts; Amber Heard’s brief appearance as Mera in Justice League‘s trailer delighted fans, and Dolph Lundgren has the size, swagger, and experience to put Jason Momoa’s Aquaman on his heels. Furthe thicking the plot, James Wan quickly stepped forward to explain that Lundgren’s ‘King Nereus’ isn’t a villain, per se, so much as a key player in the story. That’s actually entirely faithful to the comic book origins of Nereus, but if his relationship with Mera will also be adapted as faithfully, then audiences are in for an uncommon love triangle.
A picture is worth a thousands words, so we’ll offer up a shot of Mera and Nereus’s introduction to fans in Aquaman #13 (2013), and see if anything stands out to readers…
King Nereus of The Comics
The moment took readers by surprise, too, since they knew what all other Aquaman fans had taken for granted for decades: Mera is the love, bride, and queen of Arthur Curry. So when she was returned to her home of Xebel to be greeted by King Nereus planting a passionate kiss on his so-called “wife,” readers were thoroughly relieved to see her push him away in the next panel. Despite being “intended” for Nereus in keeping with Xebel customs, Princess Mera had never agreed to their engagement, nor their marriage. It was a minor twist in a much larger, more dangerous story, and after briefly keeping his “wife” imprisoned Nereus was forced to watch as Aquaman rescued her, embraced her as his queen, and everyone lived happily ever after.
While there’s little doubt that an actor of Lundgren’s pedigree, experience, and persona could pull off a power-hungry, brutal, and possessive tyrant, a potential romance – or stated romantic intentions – would certainly raise some eyebrows. First and foremost, the characters as presented in the Aquaman comics appear to have risen through the ranks of Xebel military and combat alongside eachother (in Secret Origins #5 Nereus outright states that he ascended the military in order to take Mera as his queen).
With 31 year-old Amber Heard playing the part of the self-assured, confident, and often terse princess, and the nearly 60 year-old Lundgren now holding the role of the romantically forward and possessive king, it’s inevitable to wonder if the Aquaman movie is going to pursue the same tone. The difference in age as it pertains to men and women in Hollywood is an ugly conversation, and the issue here isn’t whether the ages would seem ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ for a believable romance. The real question to ask is what James Wan had in mind when casting the part.
It’s possible that the dynamic is exactly what you would expect it to be when a beautiful princess is coveted by a powerful man twice her age (a story premise that’s lasted a few thousand years). In fact, that would place Aquaman a whole lot closer to the swords-and-sandals epics like Conan the Barbarian that both Momoa and Lundgren cut their teeth on. Heck, Jason Momoa actually got to play that role as Game of Thrones‘ Khal Drogo. It’s not, as some might claim as a knee-jerk reaction, inherently problematic from a story point of view. Especially if Nereus is meant to seem less than endearing.
But it does pose the risk of placing a woman in a tug-of-war match between two large, muscular, macho alpha males. Who knows, maybe Mera running from Xebel is a bit more believable if Aquaman seems the more obvious romantic match. Although, there could be a much simpler explanation for Wan’s casting choice, assuming that the details of King Nereus’s role are only describing his “claim” to Mera in a literal sense – and not a reference to romance at all.
The King & Princess of Xebel?
Knowing just how often superhero movie rumors can be just half the story, it’s worth considering that if James Wan the King of Xebel old enough to play the father of the Princess of Xebel… then he actually is playing her father. The details of Lundgren’s role that accompanied news of his casting are less than thorough, stating only that his character “claims Mera as his own and wants to kill Aquaman.” That’s about as basic a description as you can get (while still being accurate), raising the question of whether those are the details of the movie role, or the details of the comic character named ‘King Nereus.’
Why does that distinction matter? Because Mera’s father, King Ryus does appear in the same Geoff Johns comic run apparently being turned to for the DCEU’s Aquaman… but it’s a small role, to say the least. Ryus only appears to Mera in a vision in the main story, reminding her of her mission to kill Arthur Curry. Similarly, Nereus is the king after Ryus, and is relegated to serving the actual villain. Combine those two into a single character, and the result is a lot more compelling in nearly every possible way.
Picture it: King Nereus of Xebel tasks his daughter with the assassination of the King of Atlantis. She defies him and falls in love, wishing to remain with the Atlanteans and Arthur and leave her spiteful kingdom behind. Betrayed, abandoned, and without an heir, King Nereus is a tyrant now fueled by revenge, hate, love, longing, shame, and pride. That has all the makings of an uncommon arc in the superhero genre, not to mention giving Nereus a genuine motivation to act as an antagonist to Arthur, without making him a “villain” in the larger story.
But if the actual villain of the film – one with an axe to grind with Aquaman – sought out King Nereus to help support his own mission of vengeance… let’s just say audiences would be able to get behind that feud without hesitation.