Opinion: A superhero and a king – Ashley digs deeper into ‘Aquaman’

The Story Geeks blogger Ashley Pauls responds with an additional perspective to the same topic discussed in this week’s podcast – digging deeper into “Aquaman.” Want to share your own take? Join the conversation in The Story Geeks Facebook group!

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When people ask me about my thoughts on last year’s “Aquaman” movie, I normally respond with something along the lines of, I don’t know that it was a great film, but I genuinely did have a great time watching it.

For many fans, “Aquaman” was a step in the right direction for the DC Extended Universe. While I believe that “Batman v. Superman” doesn’t receive enough praise for its strengths, I walked away from “Justice League” feeling deeply disappointed. After “Justice League” under-performed at the box office, “Aquaman” needed to restore confidence in the brand.

And, for the most part, it succeeds. Sure, the plot gets a little messy, some of the CGI looks a bit dodgy, and one of the villain characters is much stronger than the other. But there are some cool character moments and delightfully bonkers scenes in this movie, and overall I had fun.

I love that the DCEU films all have a different feel — “Aquaman,” “Wonder Woman,” and “Shazam” are all completely different movies. Thanks to these recent films, I’m pretty optimistic for the future of the DCEU.

But, I’m getting ahead of myself. Before we look at where Aquaman’s journey could go next, let’s dig a little deeper (or dive a little deeper? Sorry, I can’t stop myself from making water puns when I talk about this movie) into “Aquaman” and explore how the film portrays this character and his legacy.

A hero and a ruler

This movie is primarily about Aquaman’s ascent to the throne of Atlantis and his journey of self-discovery along the way. He’s trying to balance two different roles here: being king and being a superhero. He seems to be okay with the hero part, but he’s not too eager to get involved with Atlantean politics, at least at the beginning of the film.

Aquaman isn’t the only superhero who struggles with this dynamic; both Thor and Black Panther balance their duties as a ruler with their duties as members of the Avengers. Black Panther seems to balance these responsibilities well and to welcome both roles, but we’ve seen Thor struggle with the burdens placed upon him. ***Spoiler alert for “Endgame”*** In fact, at the end of the most recent Avengers movie, we see Thor walk away from the throne, believing another is more suited to the task than he is.

In an odd way, seeing heroes like Aquaman trying to balance two sides of themselves is actually pretty relatable. Sure, I’m neither a superhero nor a member of a royal family, but I have a variety of different responsibilities in my life that I have to juggle, whether it’s at work, home, or as a volunteer. Sometimes my responsibilities in one area conflict with my duties in another area, and I experience failure and disappointment in myself.

It’s tough to say where Aquaman’s final loyalties should lie. Obviously, he needs to do what’s right for his people, but he can also use his gifts as a superhero to save lives, and this work calls him away from Atlantis.

In the end, it comes down to doing the best you can with the gifts and time you’ve been given. Aquaman can’t be a perfect ruler and a perfect superhero — after all, no one can be perfect. But at the end of the film, we see him genuinely trying to use his powers to help others, and I think he’s headed in the right direction. He’ll find a way to be a good hero and a ruler.

A hero’s response

In the beginning of the movie, Aquaman defeats Black Manta and his father and is about to leave the sinking submarine when Manta calls out, “Wait! You can’t leave him here! Help me! Please!”

Aquaman’s response is not exactly a sympathetic one: “You killed innocent people. Ask the sea for mercy.” And, of course, the sea has no mercy to give.

In this moment, Aquaman seems more like an anti-hero than a hero. Sure, he’s helping people by stopping the pirates, but he’s not in the mood to show the villain any mercy.

As audience members, this (presumably) bothers us, but why? Why does Aquaman’s cold response feel wrong? Why should he show mercy to the “bad guy,” who clearly doesn’t deserve it?

I believe we admire heroes who show mercy because we’re wired, deep down, to know that showing compassion is simply “the right thing to do.” We do need to stand up to bullies and people who are evil; however, we shouldn’t respond to their cruelty with more cruelty.

We have to let people experience consequences for their actions; Aquaman can’t just look the other way and allow Black Manta to hurt people. Yet a more compassionate response would have been to save Black Manta’s father, and then take them into custody and let them experience justice through the legal system.

That’s why I love the ending of this movie, which involves Aquaman showing mercy to his half brother, Ocean Master. He decides not to kill his brother, and this act of compassion just might be the spark that leads to his brother’s redemption. Even though Black Manta was a better villain and acting performance overall than Ocean Master (at least in my opinion), I do want to see the Ocean Master character again.

Trapped between two worlds

While “Aquaman” is not a flawless film, I really liked the characters, and there is plenty of material here to make me excited for future movies.

One of my disappointments about the movie is that Black Manta wasn’t used more, but I’m assuming he’ll be the main villain in the sequel. I’d love for them to keep building on that idea of redemption through showing mercy. Perhaps Black Manta will start the sequel as a villain, but maybe he and Aquaman can come to some sort of understanding. I’d like Black Manta to grapple with his past and his family legacy, the way Aquaman does in this film.

I’d also like to see more about the conflict between the sea dwellers and the surface world. Aquaman has lived in both places and has a unique perspective to offer. I believe in the next movie, we’re going to see that conflict come to the forefront even more, and Aquaman is uniquely positioned to be a peacekeeper. Plus, it would be really interesting, in terms of cinematography, to see a massive battle taking place under the water and on land simultaneously.

I’m actually not in a hurry to see another Justice League team-up. I’m pretty happy with these DC spin-off films and their unique tones and styles. I’d like to see more solo Aquaman, Wonder Woman and Shazam movies.