WARNING: This article contains SPOILERS for Justice League
Fans had high hopes for Aquaman's story in Justice League, but most of it wound up on the cutting room floor. At least, that's the impression given by the veritable wealth of underwater shots, Momoa-centric scenes, and hints at the larger DC mythology of Atlantis in the movie's marketing. Almost all of which, sadly, ended up being tossed aside - including entire performances from acclaimed actors now appearing only in the solo Aquaman movie. But it's the rich mythology of Atlantis and Arthur Curry's parents that takes the biggest hit.
Even without diving into specifics (forgive the pun) the theatrical cut clearly makes less of a role for Jason Momoa's Aquaman than Snyder intended. Even if the actor chose to keep silent on the cuts made for the two-hour runtime, and what was re-shot to fill in the blank, Snyder's determination to make Aquaman a star suggests much, much more than we get in League.
Jason Momoa promises Aquaman will still be the origin story fans crave, it was clear early on that League would tease out more of his own place in the world, in Atlantis, and in the grey area in between. Until WB and Whedon made their changes to Justice League.
Aquaman's Story Was Scrapped (Along With Vulko)
Remember when Willem Dafoe was revealed as Vulko, the citizen of Atlantis who watches over Arthur in the comics, grooming him to one day take over the crown as the people's king? Well, some predicted his role in Justice League was in serious jeopardy when his character was included on an official poster... crudely hidden behind Amber Heard's Mera (no editing, that is the real poster above).
The early seeds of that lifelong link to Atlantis were expected before Dafoe joined the solo Aquaman movie, and according to Momoa, that's exactly what Snyder originally filmed:
"What Zack and I did, we were kind of trying to establish that he was taken down there as a boy, and he was an outcast, he was a half-breed. And he was built up as a young boy because he was fed all these ideas by Vulko - that he was the rightful king. And he gets down there and he’s a half breed, he’s impure, and I’m just made to feel like I’m this disease. So after that, I was like, 'F*** you, f*** you, I’m on my own.'
That's not the only key piece of Aquaman's original Justice League arc, but his emotional turn (thanks to Diana's lasso) still arguably relies on this groundwork being laid beforehand. Now, let's take a step into the real mythology.
Aquaman Paid a Visit To The Dead King
As further evidence of just how invested Snyder was in doing Aquaman 'right' - essentially hoping to stun fans with the true scale and 'badass' nature of his modern comic mythology - one need look no further than the very first effects shot of Aquaman in action underwater. The finished footage was impressive, to say the least, depicting Jason Momoa's Aquaman swimming in Atlantis as easily as Superman flies through the air. Even more impressive was Snyder's willingness to show DC Comics fans how much of Geoff Johns's acclaimed Aquaman mythology was being adapted into the DCEU.
The image showed Arthur swimming up to a stone statue, seemingly dressed in the armor he would eventually wear when fighting alongside the League, holding a trident in one hand, seated on something of a throne, and wearing what sure looks to be a crown. In the comics, that's a clear nod to The Dead King: the entombed body of King Atlan, the first great ruler of Atlantis. As Arthur understands it, his ancestor who possessed the armor, crown, and weapon now rightfully his, should he accept his birthright.
And, no surprise, Momoa seems to confirm this sequence would have been tied to his 'outsider' subplot with Vulko:
"There’s a place where [Aquaman] goes down to, and it got cut out of the movie. He knows spots where he can go and he can see these statues, the remnants of [Atlantis]... There just wasn’t enough time in this movie."
Thankfully, at least some of King Atlan's role remains in the finished cut. In Diana's history lesson, the ancient king can be seen placing a Mother Box in its revered spot in Atlantis, wearing the armor Arthur eventually adopts. The most obvious explanation is that, just as the Greek Gods fighting in Justice League's ancient battle had their plots trimmed down in editing, Atlan's role (and crown, and armor, and weapon) were left on the cutting room floor.
Good For The Runtime, Bad For Aquaman
The plan, it seems, was to have Arthur seek out these deserted monuments to Atlantis's past (an obvious comment on the current state of Atlantis without Arthur as king). Converse with Vulko to not only tease his crisis in the coming Aquaman, but establish the conflict within Arthur as one that causes him to run from his duties - and NOT someone who answers the heroic call being issued by Bruce Wayne. Instead... well, there's not much to actually replace it.
The original plan was to understand Arthur through his interactions with a character he knows, has known, and who cares for him and his internal conflict (one which was praised ahead of the film as important to both Momoa and Snyder's pitch, with the actor also of mixed heritage, just like Aquaman). Instead, Heard is saddled with the exposition, scolding him as a man who apparently doesn't care to be king. Until Atlantis is attacked, and Arthur claims the armor and weapon of Atlantis's ancient king... off screen.
In the end, it's an understandable sacrifice for the sake of Justice League's studio-mandated two-hour running time. But given how much Snyder teased during production, and how much Atlantis's rich mythology was teased in marketing... that doesn't make it any less disappointing to see it erased completely.