In Warner Bros.’ “Aquaman,” the titular comic book superhero, Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa), seeks to unite the world while his villainous half-brother, King Orm (Patrick Wilson), crusades to keep it divided. For too long, Orm rants, the oceans have suffered at the hands of humans above land whose rampant pollution keeps killing the seas and its kingdoms below. The only answer, according to Orm, is war.
He’s a tylosaur-riding villain stirring up alarming currents of xenophobic mania across Atlantis, a self-serious tyrant in an over-the-top spectacle of winking, wanton silliness. He is, rather successfully, rallying the ocean’s formidable armed forces toward conflict.
And, reminiscent of Michael B. Jordan’s multilayered “Black Panther” villain Erik Killmonger from earlier this year, Orm isn’t completely wrong, filmmakers say. Well, not about everything.
When a very real floating patch of garbage has taken up an estimated 79,000 metric tons of real estate in the Pacific Ocean and overfishing, oil spills and global warming are just some of the man-made disasters harming the Earth’s oceans, you can’t totally blame a sea king for wanting to fight back.
“I loved how he was a real foil to Arthur, and his initial reasons for going after the surface world seemed completely validated,” said Wilson, who fills Orm’s fish-faced mask with a sense of pomp and grandiosity befitting the character’s comic book origins in the James Wan-directed tale.
After all, we are terrible to the oceans, Wilson says, “and you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who didn’t agree with that. So I knew that people would get it. Even if they didn’t like him, they would understand him.”
That environmental streak was important to thread into “Aquaman,” says Wan, who shares a story credit with Geoff Johns and Will Beall on the film (scripted by David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick and Beall) which is now playing nationwide. The filmmaker credits his upbringing in Australia with keeping the eco-friendly messaging on his mind.
“Australians are very environmentally conscious,” he said. “We care a lot about our land, and I think a lot of that stemmed from the first people of Australia and how the land means so much to them. It’s something that is sacred and that you should treat with respect, and Australians, we sort of grow up with that mentality.”
I think King Orm is right in that us surface-dwellers have no respect for the planet…. I kind of feel bad for him because he’s not wrong in that respect.
“I think King Orm is right in that us surface-dwellers have no respect for the planet…. I kind of feel bad for him because he’s not wrong in that respect,” Wan added. “But it makes the character more interesting; he’s not a one-dimensional villain. He’s coming from the right place; he’s trying to protect the planet.”
Amber Heard’s Mera, an Atlantean superheroine in her own right, plays an integral role in expressing the deeper real-world concerns of “Aquaman.”
It’s Mera who sees Orm misleading the ocean kingdoms toward conflict, defying her own father, King Nereus, to stop it. And it is Mera who embraces the half-human, half-Atlantean Aquaman, urging him to accept the responsibility of unifying his two worlds, rather than stand by and watch them destroy each other.
Heard says she never considered herself the type of actor to star in a superhero blockbuster franchise when first approached by Zack Snyder to introduce Mera in “Justice League,” but she found power and depth in her character rooted in the comics. The actress praises “Aquaman” for retaining the socially conscious themes that bring real-world issues to mind, for those who seek them.
“It makes this surreal world — this hyper-reality — grounded, and makes it relevant to us,” she said. “King Orm, for instance, is justifying wanting to start this world war and referencing reasons that give you pause and make you think, ‘Well, actually, we are poisoning our waters and dumping plastics and trash into the ocean at an accelerated speed, and it is poisoning our animals, our waters, our food, our friends, ourselves.’
“The climate is actually changing, and it is affecting how life on this planet lives. Even though he plays the villain, you can’t help but agree with his reasoning.”
More parallels to today’s political climate can be found in Orm’s desire to Make the Ocean Great Again, the filmmakers say. Those themes are also there for people to find, but they aren’t overbearing, Momoa says.
There are elements that remind you of what’s culturally relevant for us in the United States, especially right now, when Arthur comes to Atlantis.
“That’s one of the really cool things that James and the producers put into it,” said the Hawaiian-born actor, whose portrayal of the DC Comics superhero also marks a watershed moment for Pacific Islander representation in Hollywood. “It says its own stuff without being unbearable or being preachy.”
Still, it’s no accident that the undersea metropolis of Atlantis, where citizens openly display their hatred for the outsider Arthur, boasts a fortified border wall.
“Here’s the thing,” Wan said. “My movie doesn’t take place on another planet. Or another dimension. This is not Middle-earth. This is real Earth, and [Orm] strongly believes that Atlantis is the greatest country in this world — not America, not China, not England, not whatever. It is Atlantis, and so there is definitely a lot that can be read into that.”
The Texas-born Heard’s own activism has involved raising awareness of immigration issues and the family separation crisis.
“There are elements that remind you of what’s culturally relevant for us in the United States, especially right now, when Arthur comes to Atlantis and is experiencing this world for the first time,” Heard said. “It was always something that I respected and liked and encouraged to be there. I remember hearing myself say, ‘I hope that doesn’t get taken out.’”
In the lead-up to the “Aquaman” release, Wilson said, he was asked about the film’s messaging by journalists from across the world whose readings of the film reflect the political climates in their respective countries.
“Of course, people are going to look at the xenophobia and nationalism of the Atlanteans in a different light because of the current climate. And that’s okay,” Wilson said.
“If you can be a part of that conversation and ... raise some questions through this device of a big superhero movie — or make a child of mixed race maybe feel a little more comfortable with who they are — then we’ve succeeded.”