Aquaman Is the First Superhero Film that Embraces Its Biracial Potential


WARNING: The following article contains spoilers for Aquaman, in theaters now.

While superheroes of mixed racial and cultural heritage have graced the big screen before, no film embraces the possibilities of exploring biracial identity and the importance of multiculturalism more than Aquaman. The DCEU film is one of the most diverse superhero movies to date, both with its characters and cast, led by Pacific Islander-Caucasian actor Jason Momoa.

Momoa's casting as the eponymous superhero is a masterstroke in diversity, visibly amplifying the difference between Arthur Curry and the nearly entirely Caucasian Atlanteans from the maternal side of his family. The intercultural relationship between the surface world's Thomas Curry and Atlantis' Queen Atlanna had existed ever since the character was first created, but always depicted as a relationship between two Caucasian individuals. As a result, with light skin, blonde hair and blue eyes, the comic book incarnation of Aquaman is perhaps the most Aryan-looking superhero in the entire DC Universe.

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By casting Māori actor Temuera Morrison alongside Caucasian actor Nicole Kidman, the DCEU film displays the most prominent biracial couple in superhero cinema to date, their love story one of the biggest emotional threads throughout the entire movie. Over the course of the film, Arthur is repeatedly ostracized for his mixed heritage, often being referred to derisively as a "half-breed." While contextually this refers more to the character being the result of a forbidden relationship between someone from the surface world and an Atlantean, the fact that the pejorative comes from the Caucasian Orm in reference to a racially Polynesian Arthur carries an extra xenophobic weight to it.

Despite this, both Mera and Atlanna remind Arthur that his multicultural background is actually his greatest strength, making him the true, rightful heir to the throne of Atlantis. A mixed heritage not only comes with increased diversity, but also a greater perspective on two worlds that are often separate, in this case, by the seas themselves. Arthur is a child of two worlds and, simultaneously and paradoxically included and excluded from both. The distance of being an outsider and not completely fitting in is a common identity struggle for biracial individuals. It's also a recurring theme for the character in the film, with Arthur's underlying quest in the movie to find himself as he attempts to prove himself worthy of taking the throne from Orm and uniting the seven seas.

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Which isn't to say there haven't been any superheroes with mixed heritage in major Hollywood films. Fellow DCEU superhero and Justice League member Wonder Woman is the daughter of the Queen Hippolyta and the Greek God Zeus, and in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Star-Lord is the son of a human woman and Celestial father. But both mixed lineages feel more like plot devices than something informing the characters' identities; with Wonder Woman, it comes off as literal deus ex machina, while Peter Quill comes off as problematic, with the character not only completely renouncing his paternal heritage, but going so far as to purge his father's influence from his genetic makeup. While these are both fantastical cases of gods and monsters, it is the closest either the DCEU or MCU have gotten to having a mixed race superhero in their midst.

The past several years have been tremendous for diverse representation of mainstream superheroes on the big screen. Last year, the DCEU's Wonder Woman gave a female lead an overdue chance to stand in the spotlight and star in her own solo film instead of being relegated to ensemble movies, and the MCU is poised to follow suit in next year's Captain Marvel. This year's Black Panther featured a minority character as its central, solo hero to universal acclaim, award season buzz and record-breaking box office success.

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With Aquaman, the DCEU has reimagined one of its core characters as someone of mixed racial descent without being necessarily obtrusive about the casting. The film itself is still a big-budget superhero movie overall, but also weaves in messages of mixed racial romantic relationships, multiracial identity, and the importance of multiculturalism without being particularly heavy-handed about these themes and social commentaries. The greatest strength that the latest DCEU epic has isn't the ability to live under the seas, but comes from its own diverse, multicultural heart elevating the material above the standard superhero fare. Arthur Curry's biracial background doesn't only qualify him for the throne, it also gives superhero cinema its first, true multicultural hero.

Directed by James Wan, Aquaman stars Jason Momoa as Aquaman, Amber Heard as Mera, Patrick Wilson as Orm, Willem Dafoe as Nuidis Vulko, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II as Black Manta, Temuera Morrison as Thomas Curry, Dolph Lundgren as Nereus and Nicole Kidman as Queen Atlanna. The film is out in theaters everywhere.

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