During roundtable discussions with the press at New York Comic Con, "Justice League: Throne of Atlantis" producer James Tucker, screenwriter Heath Corson, and character designer Phil Bourassa spoke about DC Animation's upcoming Blu-ray/DVD/Digital release -- a story they equated with "Aquaman Begins." Based on the "Justice League" / "Aquaman" crossover event by Geoff Johns, Ivan Reis and Paul Pelletier, the movie version will diverge significantly from the original in order to quickly bring viewers up to speed on who this hero is and how he came to become the King of Atlantis.
Throughout the press room, each of the interviewees was asked about Aquaman's sometimes less than stellar reputation, and each member of the "Throne of Atlantis" crew played this down in a different way. Screenwriter Heath Corson joked, "I have no idea what you're talking about." Character designer Phil Bourassa said, "There's been some bad takes on him, but there have been bad takes on all the characters. I don't know why people fixate on him. Maybe riding a giant seahorse isn't a good look for a man? But I wouldn't mess with a dude riding a seahorse!" Producer James Tucker insisted "he's always been cool!" before delving into a more in-depth consideration of Aquaman's bad rap.
"The thing is, people ridicule him based solely on 'Super Friends.' But on 'Super Friends,' none of those heroes got a backstory or any kind of attention to character. They were just their powers, and it a kids' show, a young kids' show," Tucker said. "And he got singled out for being lame. It was called 'Super Friends!' It was all lame! But we loved it, it was all we had.
"What we've been trying to do at DC Animation throughout the years is bring Aquaman back, by giving him spotlight roles in our other series. We had him on 'Superman: The Animated Series' first, then brought him in to 'Justice League' as a guest star occasionally. In 'Brave and the Bold,' we used him every chance we got! [John DiMaggio's version was] a great, breakout character. We never wanted to make fun of him, we just wanted to make him a dude. Here's this guy, he has all these powers that some people think are weird, but he likes himself. That's the thing about Aquaman; he's not one of these guys that's all navel-gazing and tortured. He likes being Aquaman. He likes his responsibility, he likes being king of the seas. At least, that's our take on him. DC's take on him changes a lot. With this one, we want to expose him even more, and hopefully, if he's in the feature-length movie, the Zack Snyder thing, hopefully it goes through the roof, hopefully he gets his own solo movie. And pretty soon, we'll be sick of him."
Corson, the screenwriter, also spoke about the take on the hero in "Throne of Atlantis." "We wanted to ground Aquaman. This is a very different Aquaman. This is 'Aquaman Begins,'" Corson said. "He is unaware of his heritage, unaware of his Atlantean background. He's a guy who doesn't feel comfortable where he is."
This, Corson noted, is a departure from the story arc of the same name crossing over between the "Justice League" and "Aquaman" comics from 2012-13. "I would say the plot points are similar. The character is obviously not clashing with his brother yet because he doesn't know he has a brother. That becomes a realization, and then once he goes head to head with Orm, Orm obviously becomes the Big Bad. The Atlanteans are still invading, so that really is the main plot point, but we also get emotional and deep with the brother/brother fight.
"There's some real heavy-duty 'Game of Thrones' stuff in there; Orm is a Machiavellian bastard."
Though DC Animation's current slate of projects, beginning with "Justice League: War," are based on New 52 story arcs, as Corson noted the movies have more leeway to diverge from the source material than was previously possible, a change that also affects the art style and character design. "We used to do a lot of one-to-one adaptations, trying to be as close to the comic books as possible. And we were doing really classic, beloved stories, which is a double-edged sword," Bourassa, the character designer, told CBR. "You have people clamoring for 'Dark Knight' and 'Year One,' but you have to be really faithful to the style and the aesthetic of those books. You have to try to do Frank Miller, you have to try to do David Mazzucchelli. This stuff, we're parallel to the comics but we're not doing straight adaptations anymore, we're creating our own internal narrative, our own cohesive continuity that's independent of it, so it means that I can refine the style as I go forward. If I'm designing in a new style in every film, I've got to think, well, how would so-and-so draw a police officer? I don't have to draw any more police officers! I get to spend that time on Black Manta, I get to spend that time on Mera and all these really great characters. You guys don't want me spending forever trying to draw firemen in somebody else's style. I think this leads to a lot more cohesive look for these films and makes my job a lot more fun."
The story of "Justice League: Throne of Atlantis" follows the events of "War," in which Darkseid's army invaded Earth. During the battle, Atlantis' king was killed. "The Atlanteans blame the surface dwellers for the death of their king and they declare it an act of war," Corson said. "Now, the queen is trying to keep a lid on it, [arguing] that they should stay hidden and peaceful, and that the surface dwellers should not even know about their existence. She is a very powerful, bold, strong leader, and you will see Orm smash up against that in his drive and war against the surface dwellers.
"This is even bigger" than "War," Corson continued. "This is an all-out invasion of the entire planet by the Atlanteans. It's bad news. And these guys are pretty powerful. When they attack the surface world, it's big trouble. We see a giant tsunami about to hit Metropolis, so there's some major, major stakes in this."
The Justice League is thus presented with a two-front war, protecting the surface world while storming Atlantis. "I'll say this: if you send your heavy hitters down to Atlantis, who does that leave to stop a tsunami, and is that a problem? Let's say you left Flash and Shazam and Batman to stop a tsunami. Yeah, exactly."
Despite the all-out, planet-wide mayhem, Corson said there is some moral complexity to the story, as well. "Villains have to be relatable. You have to understand what it is they're doing," he said. "So in this movie, everyone is actually right. And everybody has a point of view. Even Orm is actually right in everything he's talking about; he's out to protect his people, and he sees that the surface dwellers are a problem to the Atlanteans. He's not wrong. The Justice League, in protecting the surface world, are not wrong. Aquaman is not wrong. So it becomes very murky to say who is the bad guy, because you can look at it a bunch of different ways and say, hmm -- everybody's kind of right, and that's a really interesting way to position an audience.
"Manta's pretty bad. I will say, Manta's pretty bad."
Despite the story's dramatic overtones, "Throne" will not be without humor. "It starts with a drunk Arthur Curry in a seafood restaurant talking to a lobster in a tank," Corson said, emphasizing the character moments as well, both with Aquaman and with the rest of the League. "We take another step in Superman and Wonder Woman's relationship," he said. It gets a little more complicated because he has started to see a certain reporter at the Daily Planet who interrupts them on a date."
But the film's focus journey is Aquaman's, who must undergo the most change to take up his destiny. "Arthur Curry is angry. He's never known Atlantis. And for Mera to come and say, you have to come down and save Atlantis -- he has no connection to these people. These are not people he grew up with, he does not know his mantle. He's like, what have these people ever done for me? And it's Superman who says, 'If I had a chance to spend even two minutes in the place that I am from, that would be worth it.'"
While each hero's story continues to evolve with every new New 52-based film, "I think it's nice to have a story with one character who is your main touchstone," Corson said. "This is the origin story of that character. The last one, it was Cyborg, this one, it's Aquaman. We still are continuing the dynamics of our Justice League from 'War.' Batman and Green Lantern don't necessarily like each other. Cyborg and Shazam are trying to figure out their place in the world. So it's really interesting to have the second adventure with a team. Because the first time's an accident. The second time is like, we've done this before, we didn't necessarily do it well. Are we a team? What are we now? Are we a bowling league that just gets together every week?"
Tucker, the film's producer, suggested having this sort of "touchstone" serves other purposes, as well, as it allowed the studio to work with their favorite lesser appreciated heroes and, in so doing, raise the profiles of those heroes. "The thing is, no one's going to pay us to do a solo Aquaman movie -- yet," Tucker said. "If he pops big in ['Batman v. Superman], then maybe we will. Right now, to get to all these side characters that I love, I chose the tack I did with 'Brave and the Bold.' 'Brave and the Bold' was originally supposed to be only Batman and like five other characters rotating constantly. And I was like, hell, no. I want B'wana Beast, I want Detective Chimp... I went down the line and named out who I wanted. That's what I'm hoping to do with this series. Granted, we're only doing one 'Justice League' movie a year, so we're not going to be able to cover a lot of ground in a quick amount of time, but yeah, the next movie will have characters in it you haven't seen on DVD yet."