Aquaman: An Evolution Through the Ages

Introduction

Arthur Curry is a well-known character that represents the essence of the Aquaman franchise tracing its roots to the middle of the 1940s. A son of an ordinary light man and the Queen of Atlantis, this half-blood superhero has gradually caught the fancy of the general public all over the world. Despite the preservation of Aquaman’s identity as a positive character that expresses himself through saving others, the franchise has changed a lot since Arthur’s first appearance in DC Comics’ printed media. The differences between Arthur Curry and supporting heroes in comic books of the twentieth century and the characters from Aquaman starring Jason Momoa are evident and great in number (Wan). To a large extent, these changes present something much more significant than the means of introducing more attractive and visually striking imagery. Instead, they serve the purpose of representing modern perspectives on relationships between individuals and groups and making the characters contemporary, less clichéd, and more human.

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Changes to Aquaman’s Appearance as a Response to Diversity Trends

Jason Momoa’s Aquaman is drastically different from the character depicted in the original comic books when attention is paid to the character’s physical traits and color type. Aside from well-developed and firm muscles and the recognizable orange and green costume, the two versions of Arthur Curry seem to have almost nothing in common. In the original comic book series, Aquaman looks like a beautiful young man with Nordic features, such as piercing blue eyes and blond hair, but he also has suntan on his light skin. Such features make him resemble a number of other popular and globally-known superheroes that are predominantly Caucasian males. Obviously, Momoa’s character in Aquaman, with his long dark hair, multiple tattoos, and naturally dark skin, is not similar to the canonic hero (Wan). Makeup artists working on the project did not attempt to change the main actor’s looks so that he could pass as a Caucasian person.

Aquaman’s new appearance can be attributed to the orientation of the new ideals that include diversity and minority groups’ right to be represented in a positive way. Jason Momoa became one of the first biracial actors chosen to play canonically white superheroes, which enables the new movie to appeal to those who feel pulled between two different worlds in real life. Discussions that reveal and criticize discrimination against minority groups in comic books and films have not become a widespread practice a long time ago. After a large series of achievements, the attention of racial justice activists has recently shifted from some legal matters to problems and barriers to the representation of non-white actors and actresses in traditionally white-dominated genres, such as superhero stories (Hunt 89). The demographics of customers reading and watching superhero books and movies have changed drastically since the very first appearance of Aquaman, depriving Caucasian men of their status of the only target audience (Hunt 90). This has led to the formation of new expectations and preoccupations, and, intentionally or not, the franchise has evolved to meet diversity expectations peculiar to the twenty-first century.

Attempts to Reflect Modern Social Problems

Another way of how the Aquaman franchise has evolved to respond to the preoccupations of the time becomes clear when the emphasis is placed on the details of Aquaman’s plot. In the comic books devoted to this character’s adventures that preceded the movie, close attention is paid to Arthur Curry’s relationships with his antagonists and enemies. The works are also focused on Aquaman’s daily efforts to save common people from the dangers of the ocean or join the teams of other superheroes to stand against evil. The old Aquaman from comic books or the Super Friends show of the 1970s is most of all concerned about the way to defeat the enemies and find the best applications for his supernatural abilities (Gaines). In other words, a large part of the franchise centers around the character’s continuous attempts to maintain leadership and use his power for several positive goals related to common people.

The movie released in 2018 takes the superhero’s essential problems discussed above to the next level by adding a strong environmental message. People’s readiness to discuss the scarcity of resources and the growing dangers of environmental pollution instead of accepting unlimited consumption as an appropriate lifestyle can be listed among the markers of the epoch. The growing number of climate justice and environmental activists in both developed and developing countries effectively demonstrates that the ongoing “greenification” of everything and environmental education have become significant trends (Skillington 620). It is clear that such trends that are on everyone’s lips greatly contribute to the transformation of people’s expectations related to new media products.

The abovementioned trends encourage modern people to appreciate digital media products that elaborate on how humans have become the enemies of nature. During the Silver Age of comics (the 1950s and the 1960s), Aquaman attempted at touching upon attitudes to water resources, but it was not actually perceived as a powerful message to the world (Gaines). In contrast, with multiple scenes depicting tons of marine litter, the new movie manages to meet pivotal goals that have not been pursued by the creators of the previous parts of the franchise. To begin with, Aquaman establishes more stable links between the imaginary world of Atlantis and the real world by using powerful imagery that reflects the global community’s actual concerns (Wan). Interestingly, the introduction of this environmental message only increases the degree to which the problem of marine pollution is recognized. For instance, the main villain’s hostile attitudes to humans finally become recognized as the example of righteous anger and may encourage the viewers to realize that nature may try to “fight back” in response to humanity’s actions.

Aquaman as “One of the Guys”

The differences between Arthur Curry of the Golden Age epoch and Aquaman in 2018 may also be reflective of young people’s changing values when it comes to the general impression that superheroes should create. Interestingly, the tendency to humanize superheroes and make them more similar to people with their own flaws and credible emotional reactions to events is aligned with modern comic fans’ expectations and preoccupations. For instance, modern researchers associate Marvel’s outstanding success among the young audience with its ability to replace godlike and unattainably perfect superheroes with characters that demonstrate human features and flaws (Addis and Troilo 190). Today’s teenagers and young adults also want to consume media products with superheroes that they can associate themselves with instead of looking at characters from another dimension whose motivations remain unclear (Addis and Troilo 190). By comparing the original Aquaman and the character’s rebirth in 2018, it is possible to discover multiple examples of how the character has become more human and attractive to modern teenagers.

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When the character first appeared in the comic books of the 1940s, he could make an impression of a high-flying and respectable person concerned about looking neat, concentrated, and self-disciplined (Gaines). The Golden Age Aquaman is the representation of the traits that have always been considered positive. However, a modern young person would probably regard him as more boring and standoffish if compared to the superhero played by Jason Momoa. The old Arthur Curry from the comic books is much more reserved, which finds reflection in his behaviors and attitudes to life, whereas the new Aquaman looks extroverted, outgoing, socially competent, and a bit more irrational compared to the canonical superhero (Wan). To put it in other words, Aquaman was created as a character that could be seen as unearthly and, probably, one-dimensional because of his rectitude and virtue making all other personality traits almost unintelligible.

The new movie, unlike the very first part of the franchise, endeavors to make the main character more human and similar to other people without taking away any part of Arthur Curry’s supernatural power. Jason Momoa’s Aquaman does not make an impression of a typical person of royal lineage when it comes to both appearance and the mode of behavior. Compared to the original Aquaman, he looks organic and natural regardless of whether he communicates with surface dwellers or participates in epic underwater battles (Wan). In preference to remaining serious and reserved, which is expected of a demigod, the new Aquaman often reacts to life-threatening situations with a humorous undertone (Wan). For instance, in desert scenes with Mera, Aquaman is represented as quite awkward and behaves as a reckless partygoer rather than a person to lead the entire kingdom (Wan). This frankness and infrequent attempts to assume an air of importance is what helps the new Aquaman to appeal to the young audience. The latter would definitely prefer a cool and funny guy to a superhero that tries to look serious to the point of ridiculousness.

Sexualization and the Representation of Female Characters

In reference to sexualization, the Aquaman franchise has actually evolved over time but not in a positive way that would involve attracting less attention to female characters’ body parts than before. Although being a harmful practice, female sexualization is sometimes considered as something usual, unnoticeable, and even traditional (Mulvey 346). Mera, Aquaman’s wife and one of a few female characters in the franchise has not changed drastically in terms of sexualization since her first appearance in the 1960s. The original character has exaggerated female body proportions and wears a tight-fitting costume with a plunging neckline. In Aquaman, Amber Heard’s Mera obviously has more realistic body proportions but is still sexualized, and the only thing about the costume that has been changed is the presence of long sleeves (Wan).

The situation is quite different when it comes to male sexualization. In comic books of the Golden Age, although being depicted as a strong and muscular man, Aquaman is typically fully dressed when he is somewhere around other people (Gaines). In contrast to that, in the new movie, the superhero takes advantage of an opportunity to appear shirtless and demonstrate his six-pack abs and broad shoulders (Wan). This seemingly minor change demonstrates how the discussed franchise evolves to respond to the trend of male sexualization that was not considered something normal when Aquaman first appeared. Today, although men are not objectified in the same way as women, the media portrayals of sexualized men continue to become more prevalent, thus contributing to male self-objectification (Ward 565). Additionally, the male-to-female proportion of superhero fiction fans has changed greatly since the Golden Age epoch (Hunt 86). This detail also allows the movie to conform to modern reality since it is no longer considered right to shame women for admiring men’s physicality.

Even though Mera remains a sexualized character, the franchise has changed since her first appearance to allow her to develop a more complicated personality and transform into a heroine that dares to compete with the protagonist. The “woman-as-image” paradigm criticized by Mulvey can still be noticed in Aquaman, but Mera’s contribution to the plot and independence have also increased since her first appearance (346). As compared to Mera of the 1960s that just accepts Aquaman’s sympathy and becomes his wife very quickly, Amber Heard’s heroine is finally allowed to criticize Aquaman (Wan). Instead of shadowing Arthur and taking any of his actions with humble submission, she is able to show antipathy toward him or demonstrate intelligence and astuteness in challenging situations (Wan). Combined with sexualization, Mera’s behaviors demonstrating a shift away from the female helper trope can be regarded as an attempt to react to polarization around feminism and please both sides to the conflict.

Conclusion

In conclusion, the Aquaman franchise has evolved over time, and many of the changes to the main and supporting characters are consistent with the social norms of the time and modern audience’s expectations related to superhero movies. Among such norms is the growing commitment to minority representation and eco-centric philosophies and values. The trends that involve the humanization of superheroes and paying more attention to female audiences’ aesthetic preferences and expectations are also related to the franchise’s evolution.

Works Cited

Addis, Michela, and Gabriele Troilo. “Humanizing a Superhero: An Empirical Test in the Comic Books Industry.” International Business Research, vol. 9, no. 11, 2016, pp. 189-200.

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Gaines, Kelly. “Aquaman: An Evolution through the Ages.” DC Comics News. 2019, Web.

Hunt, Whitney. “Negotiating New Racism: ‘It’s Not Racist or Sexist. It’s Just the Way It Is’.” Media, Culture & Society, vol. 41, no. 1, 2019, pp. 86-103.

Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Media and Cultural Studies: Key Works, edited by Meenakshi Gigi Durham and Douglas M. Kellner, Blackwell Publishing, 2001, pp. 342-352.

Skillington, Tracey. “Changing Perspectives on Natural Resource Heritage, Human Rights, and Intergenerational Justice.” The International Journal of Human Rights, vol. 23, no. 4, 2019, pp. 615-637.

Wan, James, director. Aquaman. Warner Bros. Pictures, 2018.

Ward, Monique L. “Media and Sexualization: State of Empirical Research, 1995–2015.” The Journal of Sex Research, vol. 53, no. 4-5, 2016, pp. 560-577.

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