While Warner Bros. and DC Comics have appeared to be dragging their feet in establishing a gallery of superhero movie franchises, the past few weeks have revealed the truth: the studio wasn’t sitting on its hands, but planning a veritable explosion of characters and series in one fell swoop. The universe officially launches with Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice, with solo films and a (two-part) Justice League movie uniting DC’s greatest heroes.
It’s fairly anti-climactic at this point to hear that yes, Aquaman is officially joining the movie universe, and yes, Jason Momoa (Game of Thrones, Conan the Barbarian) will be playing him. It’s a relief to finally put the rumors to rest, but now knowing that Momoa will be joining the rest of the League as Arthur Curry, the casting will bring more questions than answers for many fans.
Cynics might view this as a case of stunt-casting through and through – casting an actor known to the masses for little more than ‘being intimidating.’ At this point anything is possible, but we think a closer look at Momoa may surprise the unfamiliar; not to mention prove that his version of Aquaman will be anything but predictable.
The Message it Sends
It would be hard to decide who would have a more uphill battle to big screen success – Aquaman or Wonder Woman – but it was never a secret that the nautical hero had become, for many, a bit of a punchline alongside the likes of Superman and Batman (credit both Super Friends and Family Guy for that). But what casual audiences may not know is that DC Comics already recognized the problem – and solved it.
There is no name in DC Comics more influential today than Geoff Johns, Chief Creative Officer of DC Entertainment and writer of both “Green Lantern: Rebirth” and “Flash: Rebirth”; two acclaimed reboots that each led to universe-spanning events, ultimately culminating in DC’s company-wide New 52 reboot. It was an opportunity for every one of the publisher’s 52 titles to make a fresh start, with a style and sensibility that could be directly tailored to contemporary audiences. Out of all the possible titles he could have chosen to relaunch himself, Johns set to work on Aquaman.
And it was clear in the the first pages that he – and DC – were out to prove a point.
With the first issue, Johns put the most well-known insults and assumptions into the mouths of characters on the page, and set the record straight: Aquaman does not “talk to fish,” he does enjoy seafood, and is (nearly) as powerful and dangerous as any League member. At sea or on land, something as useless as a bullet won’t hurt him – it just makes him angry.
The new Arthur Curry became a central figure in several “Justice League” arcs, reinforcing our belief that an Aquaman movie could be a certified blockbuster (aided by Marvel’s lack of a seafaring hero, as Namor’s rights rest with Universal), while cementing his role as an indisputable member of the League – in many ways, one of its most dangerous.
The risk of translating that new success to movie audiences is still a challenge, as convincing comic readers and winning over box office crowds are entirely different animals. So how do you convince people – in terms that a larger movie audience can immediately recognize – that the live-action Aquaman will be more than a walking joke? Easy: cast an actor that defies their expectations at first glance.
Jason Momoa’s most well-known role is likely still that of ‘Khal Drogo’ on HBO’s Game of Thrones;- a fantasy series that managed to capture the attention of a surprisingly diverse audience of all ages and tastes. Given that level of impact on the cultural zeitgeist, it’s safe to assume that those following development of Batman V Superman would likely know Momoa, by face, if not by name.
It’s entirely unclear how closely Snyder’s version, presumed to debut in the first Justice League movie, will mimic the themes or elements of Johns’ reboot, but both creators are after essentially the same goal: convince people the hero isn’t who they thought he was (Snyder even called a Detroit radio station to make the case for Aquaman being a certified “badass”). In this case, Snyder can back up his claim by casting an actor the world knows as a bare-chested, muscle-bound warrior.
When compiling our list of potential Aquaman actors, we explained why casting a period/swords-and-sandals action star would be a wise move. And although Momoa wasn’t on our list (few guessed DC and WB would really be targeting a tattooed, Hawaiian Aquaman), the casting shows DC is thinking along the same lines. And if the goal is to silence those who turn up their nose at the hero, then Momoa’s casting at least questioning their assumptions about the direction a live-action incarnation would take.
It’s easy to see that Momoa fits a superhero role: standing at 6’4″ and boasting a comic book physique, he’ll be right at home beside either Henry Cavill (6’1″) or Ben Affleck (6’3″). Of course, muscle mass has proven to be low on the list of deciding factors when it comes to portraying physically strong comic book heroes (as evidenced by Gal Gadot’s casting as Wonder Woman).
Momoa’s size and reputation as a ruthless killing machine would dispel the image of Aquaman popularized by the animated Super Friends series, opening up the possibility for exploring some of the best stories in recent “Aquaman” comics. And, as Snyder himself has pointed out, it’s unwise to overlook Aquaman’s own unique abilities.
The masses may see Aquaman as something of a lightweight, but blessed with a physiology that grants him superhuman strength and agility and heightened weapons training, he can take the fight to the rest of the League like few others. And with or without powers, a fight between Momoa and Affleck’s admittedly hulking Batman wouldn’t be doubted for a second.
While his two most marketed roles – in Bullet to the Head and Conan the Barbarian – proved to be less than star-making, Momoa’s talent for fight choreography was proven to be top-notch. And the amount of charm and nuance he managed to bring to criminally under-written roles proved that his ability to captivate audiences was clearly being wasted by those looking only to his appearance.
It’s also easy to forget that the member of the Justice League who “talks to fish” is actually the appointed King of Atlantis, and ruler of the Earth’s seas (it’s assumed that he will take exception to the Kryptonian ‘World Machine’ deployed in the Indian Ocean in Man of Steel – the apparent thanks he was given for keeping tabs on Clark Kent). And that aspect of the character – a justifiably angry leader – is one Momoa has in the bag.
For the uninitiated, we’ll provide you with the basics of Aquaman’s origin: as the son of Atlanna (a member of the Atlantean royal family) and Tom Curry (a humble Maine lighthouse keeper), Arthur Curry was raised with an eye for helping those around him, only to find out he was unlike them, and would actually be expected to rule over an entire civilization that he, like the rest of the world, believed was simply a legend.
Understandably, the character has been portrayed as a particularly conflicted one: equal parts abandonment and resentment. Having shown the ability to portray a man seemingly born to rule (Khal Drogo) and a warrior forged by tragedy and loss (Conan), we would say that Momoa has earned the right to tackle both at once – in a project that won’t let his skills go unnoticed.
Could Zack Snyder be looking to these roles as a sign of his version of Aquaman for Justice League? That’s speculation on our part, but Momoa’s other work and career direction offers some more intriguing evidence.
These days, actors better known for their bicep size than compelling character studies pop into the spotlight on a yearly basis – and disappear just as quickly. Although Momoa’s best-known roles paint the actor as a typecast ‘brute,’ defining his career by those parts is flawed thinking.
After all, the actor’s rising star and experience as brutish muscle led him to the top of the list for Guardians of the Galaxy‘s ‘Drax the Destroyer’ – a hulking, green-skinned, tattooed killer.
Despite being a role tailor-made for the actor, the part ultimately went to Dave Bautista, with sources at the time claiming that Momoa lost the role for demanding too much money from Marvel. But Momoa offered a different explanation for why he passed on the role when speaking with Zap2It in February:
“It didn’t really fit in my time because I’ve done so many things where I don’t say much and I’m colored up and I have my shirt off again. I made a conscious choice to turn down some movies that were action-based to direct ‘Road to Paloma’ so people could see that side.
“I want my children to see their father happy. It’s not that it’s not a good role, it just wasn’t the right thing. I was on Stargate: Atlantis for four years playing a similar character called Ronon, who was an alien who didn’t say much and grunted. I’ve been there and done that, whether people have seen it or not. You want to stretch.”
Typically, actors cast for their size or ‘brood-ability’ grab all the roles they can before their time in the spotlight comes to an end. Yet Momoa’s decision to step out of the spotlight himself (if his explanation is accurate) shows that the actor is after more than just fame.
That’s a fact proven by the “stretch” being alluded to: Road to Paloma, the independent film written by, directed by, and starring Momoa. Telling the story of a Native American man on the run after taking justice into his own hands, the film went on to be a surprise hit on the festival circuit, showing Momoa has more strengths than his muscles would imply.
When discussing the film in an interview with IndieWire, Momoa explained that the assumptions about his talent were a large part of why he felt he had to take on the role of director himself:
“Growing up in Iowa, it was like, you wanna see the world? Movies can help you do that… it’s hard to find good stories, and I’m not at the top of the list to get into those great stories, so I’m like f*** it, I’m going to make it myself, and I’m going to find the funding and do those acting gigs, but make my true art, to tell the stories I want to tell.”
Given Momoa’s stance – while admirable – it would seem that his casting in any blockbuster film, Batman V Superman or otherwise, wouldn’t be the same no-brainer as it would for others. But the subject matter of Road to Paloma is also a sign of the kind of stories that the actor finds most appealing at present.
With a Native Hawaiian father and a mother partly of Native American descent, Momoa’s interest in relevant issues facing Native Americans is understandable. And just as his independent film was being submitted to Sundance, the actor was already actively pursuing his next role: the central antagonist of SundanceTV’s The Red Road, a fictionalized story involving the real world Ramapo Lenape Nation.
Created and written by Aaron Guzikowski – the mind behind last year’s gripping dramatic thriller Prisoners – Momoa knew that landing the role wouldn’t be easy, but whether casting directors were ready to believe he could play the part of the series’ antagonist, it was a part he had to have:
“This guy’s own tribe doesn’t like him, he’s an outcast. That’s appealing as an actor, you want to play that, to play the bad guy — that’s where the drama is right? But at some point, his tribe’s going to bring him back, and he’s going to do good things for his tribe and not going just be selfish for himself, and he’s going to learn… He’s hurt. The guy’s just hurt. He’s wounded and he’s a lone wolf. He just doesn’t trust anyone, he doesn’t have anyone loving him, and that’s what we want as humans, is community, to belong.”
In the end Momoa convinced the showrunners that he was the man for the role, and the ensuing performance in the show’s first season speaks for itself.
We would recommend any readers who are willing to be convinced that Khal Drogo is more than muscle watch the show at their earliest chance, but it’s the elements of the character that most drew Momoa that we find telling. And just as Ben Affleck’s past experience as a blend of darkness and heroism make him a compelling choice for Bruce Wayne, Momoa’s interest (and skill) in playing a man without a tribe holds particular promise for a Justice League universe’s take on Aquaman.
A desire for a sense of belonging is what defined Geoff Johns’ new vision for Aquaman, and is without a doubt the take we hope to see Zack Snyder adopt (given Johns’ position within DC Entertainment, it seems a safe bet). And while he may not be everyone’s top choice, Momoa has the build, the skills, and the desire to do that version of the hero justice.
If nothing else, Snyder’s decision to add two actor/writer/directors to his Justice League is more promising than casting relative unknowns. Even if audiences may not get the clean-shaven, blond-haired Arthur Curry they always dreamed of.
Besides the box office draw of seeing a war for the Throne of Atlantis played out underwater, comic book fans can see why adding Aquaman to Warner Bros.’ movie universe would do more than add Colossal Squids or Great White Sharks to the team’s forces. With Henry Cavill’s Superman established as a wholesome, all-American farmboy just trying to do the right thing, Batman V Superman looks to deliver a reality check.
That rude awakening will come in the form of Ben Affleck’s Batman, set to hold Superman accountable for the damage he wreaked on Metropolis. Add Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman, expected to embody a more classical sense of royalty and duty, and you’ve got DC’s Big Three covered.
That leaves audiences with a clean-cut Boy Scout blessed with not one, but two loving families; a billionaire playboy whose family was stolen from him, scarring him for life; and the daughter of an all-female society realizing her home was sheltering her from an admittedly ugly world. Adding a multi-racial child who has a position of power thrust upon him while struggling with both cultures’ expectations is another unique archetype, not to mention one that a large section of the audience could relate to.
Beyond that, the physicality and presence Momoa tends to bring with him will be put to use in a film starring two of the most famous superheroes in the world. It was recently revealed that after Henry Cavill’s superhuman physique left little doubt he could make Superman’s strength believable, Zack Snyder made the conscious choice to look for a Batman actor Cavill would “need to look up to.”
With mass audiences still not quite sure what to expect from Momoa, it’s possible he might keep up the trend, and add a presence to the team that both Batman and Superman will physically look up to. But going deeper, the character reveals how many complementary and conflicting dynamics would exist in this version of the League.
With Curry and Diana both familiar with the weight of royal expectations, and how strange the world seems to an outsider, the common ground is clear. But a world-weary king may also share the resentment or anger that Ben Affleck’s Batman is expected to have as well. Add in a hero like Kal-El, who also knows that the public’s perception can often be mistaken, and suddenly the team’s individual powers seem less important than their relationship to their parents.
For Bruce Wayne, the central theme is one of loss. For Clark Kent, adoption. For Diana, one of motherhood (and potentially some serious father issues). And now with Arthur Curry, finding his place in two cultures, yet both being alien. In other words: expect the theme of “legacy” to be a strong one going forward. And this version of Aquaman – with Momoa’s stated views on his own blend of culture and motivations – seems like a strong candidate to embody it.
With a role in not one, but two team-ups, and a solo movie on the way, more information about what to expect from Jason Momoa’s Aquaman should be coming in due time. For now, what do you think of the casting? Has our argument convinced some skeptics that it may be best to wait and see, or are the physical attributes or comic book canon the bottom line?
Batman vs. Superman will be in theaters on July 17, 2015.
Follow Andrew on Twitter @andrew_dyce.