We could be forgiven for thinking director Zack Snyder was trying a little too hard in early 2016 with the first look at Jason Momoa as Aquaman from “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.” Hair hanging like seaweed, his arms and torso covered with a combination of tattoos and armor, this imposing sea king was a far cry from the aquatic superhero the movie-going public recognized, if they knew him at all. And that was most certainly the point.
Sometime in his 75-year career, most likely owing to his role on the animated “Super Friends,” Aquaman became the butt of a seemingly endless stream of jokes, about his geographic limitations, about his (sigh) ability to “talk to fish,” about whatever. Over the decades, it’s led creators to push back by dramatically increasing his powers and arsenal, and altering his depiction, from clean-shaven sea-faring superhero to bearded, brooding monarch of the waves. He lost a hand, and then replaced it, first with a harpoon, then with a golden shape-shifting prosthesis, and then with one made of … magic water? He’s been killed and resurrected; for a time there was even another, younger version of Aquaman. So, yes, this hero carries a lot of waterlogged baggage.
In his 2011 reintroduction as part of DC Comics’ New 52, writer Geoff Johns addressed the ridicule directly, as armed criminals and pursuing police alike questioned what “Tuna Man” intended to do — “We’re not in the ocean,” one officer said, “and I don’t see any fish around” — before the orange-and-green-clad hero flipped the speeding armored truck using only his trident and brute strength. The mockery didn’t end there, however, as a cop offered him a glass of water (during the Silver Age, he would die if he didn’t come into contact with water at least once an hour), and later Aquaman set a restaurant customer straight: “I don’t talk to fish.”
That hoary barb even made an appearance in the “Justice League” sizzle reel released in July at Comic-Con International, which otherwise depicted Momoa’s Aquaman as a booze-swilling Atlantean bro who probably works on the side as a model for a men’s fragrance. Something called Ocean Breeze, maybe.
However, that changed over the weekend with the release of the film’s first full-length trailer. In those two-and-a-half monochromatic minutes filled with hordes of invading aliens, apocalyptic landscapes, solemn proclamations and deafening guitar riffs, Aquaman came to life. The depiction won’t win over all fans (then again, what would?); it’s not Johns’ version or, visual similarities aside, Peter David’s, or “Justice League Unlimited’s.” But, make no mistake, it is Aquaman.
One part “Batman: The Brave and the Bold” and two parts pure Momoa, this Arthur Curry emerges as the star of the “Justice League” trailer. Even those who criticize Snyder’s directing style and aesthetic, Cyborg’s CG body and the faceless nature of the threat (all valid, certainly) will undoubtedly concede Aquaman is a standout — maybe the standout. He could very well end up being to “Justice League” what Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman was to the incredibly divisive “Batman v Superman”: the one element almost most everyone can agree on.
In some ways, that shouldn’t be surprising. Momoa’s blend of swagger and easing-going charm have earned him fans from his early roles on “Baywatch: Hawaii” and “Stargate Atlantis” to more recent work like “Game of Thrones” and “The Red Road.” (Let’s skip past “Conan the Barbarian” and “Wolves.”) Those qualities shine through in the trailer, where, sure, Momoa’s Aquaman is still a hard-drinking bro, but he also exudes charisma and nobility, even when he’s depositing a half-drowned fisherman in a tavern, and taking a bottle of booze as payment.
More importantly, though, he demands the attention of the camera, and the viewer, in a way similar to Gadot’s Wonder Woman. Look past the dripping hair, the sea spray and the alcohol, and there’s regality, tinged with humor. Like, again, Gadot’s Diana, he can not only share the screen with Ben Affleck’s billionaire-playboy vigilante but actually steal the scenes. For evidence, look no further than the exchange where Aquaman observes, “Just like a bat! I dig it,” setting up the Dark Knight’s deadpan retort to Commissioner Gordon.
Taken together with Aquaman’s nod to the Caped Crusader before launching himself from the racing Batmobile into oncoming Parademons, it brings the promise — well, OK, hope — of honest-to-goodness chemistry between Momoa and Affleck, something the title characters of “Batman v Superman” lacked (whether Affleck, Henry Cavill or someone else is to blame for that is another discussion entirely). We can debate the strengths and weaknesses of the DC Extended Universe all day, but there can be at least some agreement that it’s wanting for actual, believable friendships.
All of that said, one trailer (rather, one trailer and a sizzle reel) isn’t enough to soothe all concerns about “Justice League.” Love or hate Zack Snyder’s oeuvre, his signature is all over this footage, from the slow-motion fight sequences to the music to the cyan haze that envelopes everything, and neither the charisma of Momoa’s Aquaman nor the endearing awkwardness of Ezra Miller’s Barry Allen changes that. It’s also important to remember that the inspirational initial teaser for 2013’s “Man of Steel” set up audiences for a film that was drastically different from what ultimately arrived in theaters.
However, what we’ve seen already of Momoa should make everyone at least a little more optimistic about “Justice League,” and a lot more excited for director James Wan’s 2018 solo film. Behind-the-scenes footage released by Snyder early this month assuaged many concerns about the underwater scenes — 2017’s aquatic answer to “You’ll Believe a Man Can Fly” — and now we can take comfort in knowing that Momoa is Aquaman. Maybe not the one you remember, but certainly one we can root for.
Fueled by his restored faith in humanity and inspired by Superman’s selfless act, Bruce Wayne enlists the help of his newfound ally Diana Prince to face an even greater enemy in director Zack Snyder’s “Justice League.” Together, Batman and Wonder Woman work quickly to find and recruit a team of metahumans to stand against this newly awakened threat. But despite the formation of this unprecedented league of heroes — Batman, Wonder Woman, Aquaman, Cyborg and The Flash — it may already be too late to save the planet from an assault of catastrophic proportions.
Arriving Nov. 17, “Justice League” stars Ben Affleck as Batman, Henry Cavill as Superman, Amy Adams as Lois Lane, Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman, Jason Momoa as Aquaman, Ezra Miller as The Flash, Ray Fisher as Cyborg, Willem Dafoe as Vulko, Jesse Eisenberg as Lex Luthor, Jeremy Irons Alfred Pennyworth, Diane Lane as Martha Kent, Connie Nielsen Queen Hippolyta and J. K. Simmons as Commissioner Gordon.