Diving into Aquaman

February 11, 2019 Jeff Goldsmith

One Billion Dollars Later – there’s a lot to learn about how the storytelling in Aquaman connected with worldwide audiences.

Now, for your reading pleasure, please enjoy this excerpt from Backstory’s 4,000 word interview with screenwriters David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick and Will Beal from Backstory Issue 35 – now available for purchase as an individual issue or live to access for subscribers!

Spoiler warning: Major plot points are discussed throughout

Despite his being a founding member of the Justice League and one of DC Comics’ longest-running characters, Aquaman has had a bit of an image problem since his creation in 1941 (by Mort Weisinger and Paul Norris), with many believing he was simply a second-tier underwater Superman sporting wavy blond hair and an especially tacky green-and-gold suit. To some, even his impressive abilities to communicate with all forms of marine life seemed like an insignificant superpower. That image didn’t improve much during the run of the 1960s Super Friends animated series. Anyone remember Aquaman riding astride an oversize seahorse, complete with saddle?

Beginning in the mid-1990s, a concerted effort was made in comics to toughen up Aquaman’s squeaky-clean image, giving him a longhaired, bearded look that was part muscled surfer dude, part badass biker. It was a look filmmaker Zack Snyder carried over into Aquaman’s first official film appearance, at the tail end of 2016’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, and then into the character’s more fully realized debut in Justice League the following year, alongside teammates Batman, Wonder Woman, the Flash, Cyborg and eventually Superman—some of whom already had fully formed film careers by that point. But with the new James Wan–directed Aquaman, part-human, part-Atlantean hero Arthur Curry (played again by Jason Momoa) gets to step into the foreground of an epic adventure as a character torn between the air-breathing world in which he was raised and the undersea kingdom he was destined to return to and possibly rule. The secret to Aquaman’s success lies in how it features several genres under one roof: a fantasy where Wan and company engage in a scale of world building that is rarely seen today; a treasure hunt; a love story; a Shakespearean-style tale of brothers fighting over a king’s throne; an environmental message tale; a road picture; and a bit of a comedy, thanks to Momoa’s naturally funny and likable personality. It should come as no surprise that developing the film’s narrative took several years and a slew of writers to narrow down what plot lines from the comics would be combined with a handful of original ideas to create the final work.

Aquaman marks the first time filmmakers have told the character’s origin story—or more specifically, the romance that led to being born to parents Tom Curry (Temuera Morrison), a human lighthouse keeper, and Atlanna (Nicole Kidman), the queen of Atlantis. Arthur’s half-breed status becomes a bone of contention years later, especially by his pure-bred, Atlantis-born half-brother Orm (Wan regular Patrick Wilson). Rather than simply tell Arthur’s story from birth to the present, the film flashes back to his younger years, during which he trained with mentor Vulko (Willem Dafoe), an Atlantean loyal to Arthur’s mother who secretly visited the surface world to look out for the boy. This portion of the film’s story borrows heavily from the hero’s comic-book incarnation of earlier this decade, written by producer and DC comics guru, Geoff Johns. Notably, Johns introduced a species known as the Trench, cousins of sorts to the Atlanteans, who were thrown deep into the Marianas Trench and evolved with a different look and powers. In the comics, Johns established Vulko as not only a mentor but Arthur’s only real link to Atlantis and his long-missing mother, who must leave the boy and his father early in the film.

Beall—a former LAPD detective who went on to write the script for Gangster Squad—and co-writer David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick (Orphan) traded versions of the screenplay back and forth for a couple years but never actually worked together in any capacity. Beall took a first crack at the script, which excited fans since his unused—and recently leaked—2012 Justice League script was deemed “cosmically weird” by one writer and featured additional heroes Green Lantern and Hawkman, but not Aquaman. That film was set to be directed by Ben Affleck (before he opted to take on the Batman role) but fell apart when Zack Snyder decided Batman v Superman needed to happen first. “After that script got killed,” Beall says, “I talked to executives at Warner Bros., who told me they had another character they wanted to break off, because at that point [in Batman v Superman], Aquaman appears for the first time. I went out to Detroit to meet with Zack and [producer Deborah] Snyder, who were both very much in charge of the DC universe, and they were in prep on their film. That’s the first time I saw a costume test of Momoa in the Aquaman outfit, and it was actually amazing. It was a completely different take on the character, but it also felt completely true. So I went to work on the first draft of the script, and a lot of the bones of that story still remain.”

Having worked with Wan on 2016’s The Conjuring 2, Johnson-McGoldrick was approached about Aquaman while trading notes with Wan on the former film. “Warner Bros. was about to make James an offer on Aquaman, and he asked if I wanted to be involved, and I was really excited to say yes,” he says. “That was a space I wanted to work in. One of my first loves is horror movies, but I’ve always wanted to work in a tentpole space. By the time we got on set for Conjuring 2, I was spending a lot of my free time reading Aquaman comics.” Back in the day, HBO’s Entourage had a jokey subplot involving James Cameron directing a troubled version of Aquaman that works out fine in the end. Still in the zeitgeist, that didn’t make this film an easy sell, and the writers say they’re grateful to Justice League’s team for giving the superhero enough of a personality on which to build their script. “I feel like a lot of the heavy lifting on the stigma of Aquaman was done by Zack Snyder. He set the table for us with this character, who had been so maligned. Let’s face it, there’s a generation who are most familiar with Aquaman because of [TV’s] Robot Chicken. What Zack did was smash everybody’s idea of who Aquaman was by casting Jason Momoa. Your eye is changed with regard to who that character is because of him. A very early image of Jason that got out there was a character poster with him and the trident, getting ahead of people who were ready to laugh at Aquaman, as if to say, ‘Don’t laugh at Aquaman, or he’ll kick your ass.’

To read the complete 4,000 word interview in Issue 35 of Backstory, click HERE to subscribe or buy it as a single issue.

For more info about all the other articles in issue 35, view the Table of Contents.