Next week, the Aquaman live-action film may complete one of the most remarkable pop culture comebacks since the late ’80s. Jason Momoa stars as Aquaman, and the movie is tracking to be one of the year’s biggest superhero adventures at the box office. Momoa’s Aquaman has the capacity for comedy, but the title character is no longer the butt of the joke in his own adaptations. It only took the better part of eight decades to happen.
To comic book readers, Aquaman’s an original member of the Justice League and one of the top DC heroes. But, for decades, the King of Atlantis was considered to be pathetic. He wasn’t super or mighty, he was just the guy who talks to fish!
Casual fans may not realize it, but Aquaman has been around since 1941. When he was created by Mort Weisinger and artist Paul Norris, Aquaman wasn’t intended to be a joke or even comedic. As we recently noted, the early Aquaman was so personality-free that he didn’t even have his mythology in place until several years later.
How did Aquaman’s reputation sink so far? The blame lies largely in television. While Aquaman’s comic stories of the ’50s and ’60s were fairly lighthearted, they also fleshed out Aquaman and his supporting cast. That created enough material for The Superman/Aquaman Hour of Adventure in 1967. That show was actually a pretty good take on Aquaman that was true to that era. Unfortunately, Aquaman was then prominently featured in Super Friends, starting in 1973. From there, his legacy began to suffer.
It’s not too unusual for comic book adaptations to influence the source material for years to come. The Batman TV series starring Adam West created such a big impression on the general public that for two decades it was the most indelible portrayal of the character for people who had never read the comics. Even when the Batman comics returned to a more serious style in the late ’60s and early ’70s, it still took Tim Burton’s Batman movie to really convince the public that the Caped Crusader wasn’t the kitschy “Biff! Pow!” guy anymore.
Aquaman wasn’t as lucky, and the stench of Super Friends’ ineffectual portrayal stuck with him for decades. Super Friends turned all of DC’s biggest heroes into sappy-go-lucky stiffs. That helped the show make the characters kid-friendly, but it had the side effect of making Aquaman look like a fool, and it cemented his unearned reputation as a weaker hero. The creative team behind the show may not have intended it, but their version of Aquaman became the most commonly accepted. That’s why even decades after Super Friends ended, Cartoon Network couldn’t resist making Aquaman the butt of the joke in this PowerPuff Girls crossover short.
That’s pretty much how it went for years. The intriguing thing is that the Aquaman comics had already course corrected decades earlier. But there was still the occasional backslide, like the infamous Justice League Detroit era. That was the time that Aquaman insisted that the Justice League drop any members who couldn’t commit to the team full time. Instead of Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman, we got these losers.
Justice League Detroit
In the ’90s, DC was ready to be a little bit more radical with their take on Aquaman. Longtime Hulk scribe Peter David revitalized Aquaman by making him much tougher than before. He ditched the clean-cut look for a beard and long hair, and he replaced his left hand with a freakin’ harpoon. More than anything else, it’s David’s take on Aquaman that helped shape the hero’s portrayal in the upcoming movie.
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Aquaman’s next cartoon appearance came in Superman: The Animated Series, which kept the classic look but added his ’90s attitude. When Justice League followed a few years later, it went for a version of Aquaman who even more of a barbarian than his comic incarnation. This was a hero so badass that he actually cut off his own hand so he could save his son.
That’s arguably more hardcore than our current live-action Aquaman. And even that wasn’t quite enough to shake the Super Friends Aquaman among the general public. Justice League was popular, but it didn’t quite have the reach of Super Friends.
Strangely enough, HBO’s Entourage series also dealt with Aquaman’s bad rep. In the second season, the show’s movie star, Vinnie Chase, was approached to headline an Aquaman movie directed by James Cameron (who appeared as himself). Within the world of the show, Aquaman became an even bigger hit than the first Spider-Man film. However, the show only shared a small clip from the actual “movie.”
Unfortunately, there was a slight setback for Aquaman’s pop culture comeback as a “cool” character. The Batman: The Brave and the Bold animated series cast John DiMaggio as perhaps the goofiest Aquaman to date. He wasn’t an ineffectual hero, but he was a lovable buffoon.
That’s actually pretty funny, but for fans of a more serious Aquaman, that was kind of the problem. Brave and the Bold essentially him into a joke again.
For a while, Aquaman was somewhat radioactive in the comic book world. DC essentially gave up on Arthur Curry, and killed him off in Aquaman: Sword of Atlantis. His replacement was a younger hero who had a similar name. However, this take on the concept didn’t last long. In 2011, Geoff Johns and artist Ivan Reis relaunched Aquaman as part of the New 52 reboot. Johns even integrated Aquaman’s reputation as a joke into the comic, so Aquaman could confront it head on and demonstrate why he was on the same level as the rest of the Justice League.
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Johns’ portrayal of Aquaman went a long way towards repairing the damage that had been done with the character. It was also used in part as the basis for the live-action interpretation of Aquaman played by Momoa. The DC live-action films may have their flaws, but Momoa’s Aquaman came off very well in Justice League. It certainly helped that Momoa’s Game of Thrones experience gave him solid geek cred as Aquaman. But the most important thing is that the movie didn’t treat him like a joke. It also allowed Momoa’s natural charisma to shine through and make him a formidable hero.
Truthfully, Aquaman’s future rests in the hands of moviegoers. If Aquaman becomes a blockbuster, it’s going to spawn at least one sequel, if not more. It’s also going to be the new “definitive” take on Aquaman, as far as the general public is concerned. And we may finally be able to put all of those Super Friends Aquaman jokes behind us.