Welcome to Adventure(s) Time's sixty-third installment, a look at animated heroes of the past. This week, we're revisiting the first time the animated Justice League deigned to feature "joke character" Aquaman. Then, a related story from the tie-in comic.
I'm not sure when the "Aquaman is lame" mantra began amongst fandom. (It predates the modern Internet, so it's not truly a "meme.") Wizard magazine, and its sister Toyfare, surely contributed to it. Cartoon Network, in the late '90s, likely made it mainstream with their Super Friends promos. Produced by the Williams Street crew now responsible for Adult Swim's programming, Aquaman was consistently the butt of the joke. "Hor! He talks to fish!" and all of that.
The hero's status as a punchline isn't the reason he wasn't selected as one of the seven Justice League regulars, but the producers acknowledge it played some role. When featuring him in the two-parter "The Enemy Below," written by Kevin Hopps and directed by Dan Riba, a conscious effort was made to distance Aquaman as far from Super Friends as possible. This Aquaman is King Arthur, the coldly pragmatic ruler of Atlantis. He's irritated by human interference in his land, opening the story by attacking a U.S. nuclear sub.
After initially presenting Arthur as a potential villain (his past with Superman only obliquely acknowledged), his character is fleshed out in subsequent scenes. He's a new father, fiercely protective of his wife Mera and their son. His brother, Orm, is actively advocating for a full-scale attack on the surface world, which he rejects.
While Arthur allows the Justice League to rescue the submarine crew, he does claim the sub's plutonium as his own. So, not strictly a villain, but not the "lame" Super Friends hero, either. He's now a cross between Namor and perhaps Conan, while still maintaining some of the classic Aquaman traits.
With Superman's encouragement, Arthur travels to the surface world to present Atlantis' case to an international conference, only to be attacked by Deadshot. Batman manages to devise the healing tank needed to spare Arthur's life, and intimidate Deadshot into turning on his employer. The unique payment of gold coins points to Orm as the culprit.
Arthur, now healed, discovers this independently upon returning home. Orm plots to use a lava fissure to kill both Arthur and Arthur, Jr., granting him a clear path to the throne. Arthur escapes the death trap, and rescues his son, by using his belt buckle to sever his left hand.
The Justice League, with Mera's help, escape another deathtrap. From there, they team with Arthur to stop Orm, and the Doomsday Thermal Reactor he's armed with the stolen plutonium. It's a fairly pat ending, complete with messages on teamwork and working together...with one exception.
Facing his brother in the Arctic Circle, Arthur is given an opportunity to save Orm from a fatal fall. He refuses, reaching for his ceremonial trident instead. Orm screams in horror, falling to his death. Not very pro-social, Aquaman!