On Friday, Zack Snyder dropped new photographs of Jason Momoa as Aquaman and, as I’m sure you all have realized, it is everything we deserve. There was a lot of talk on Twitter about how the new Aquaman was sexy—to his detriment to some but to his improvement for others—and, for some people, to whom the image didn’t particularly represent anything new, given he’s been similarly armored before. But guys, I will keep screaming from the top of the hills until people understand that this casting and redesign might very well be one of the most inspired comics choices in the history of adaptations—and also that this is the version of the Atlantean King who should appear in the comics.
Let’s consider first The Unbearable Whiteness of Being that the DC and Marvel landscape has afforded us for most of the last 75 years. Things are certainly getting better on both the comics and film/tv front, and I’ve noticed that DC in particular has made strong moves towards presenting a diverse set of characters in their big screen attempts. Say what you will about the company, in their coming cinematic universe, they’re presenting: a black hero, a female heroine, a film headlined by an openly queer man, a black Deadshot, a black-Samoan mixed race Black Adam—and, of course, our Pacific Islander Aquaman.
Now, it’s great that Aquaman is sexy. I approve casting and cinematic choices that are made with androphiles in mind. But, casting a Native Hawaiian here does more than any other casting/redesign has done—it makes the character in question better.
Aquaman’s origin story is kind of side-eye worthy at best and convoluted at worst. Wendy covers a lot of it in her recent character appreciation post, and Kelly twote some righteous tweets, but I’ll recap briefly. In his very first Golden Age iteration, his father was an undersea explorer who eventually taught himself and his sons the secrets of Atlantis—including how to live and breathe underwater. By Silver Age, however, he was half-man and half-Atlantean. By the Modern Age, someone noticed that blonde, blue-eyed man with oceanic powers was a little less than culturally likely—so they decided to blame it on the Curse of Kordax, making him the only blonde in an otherwise dark-haired Atlantis that’s meant to be a commentary on race.
Lots of other twists and turns happen from then up to the New52, but one thing remains constant: Arthur (or Orin, actually, depending on whose Aquaman you read) remains a white guy and that’s never made a great deal of sense. Atlantis is an oceanic kingdom, so you’d expect it to be filled with characters who look similar to, I don’t know—the indigenous peoples of Oceania, right?
(To be fair, Young Justice, greatest animated show of all time, already picked up on this and ran with it. Aqualad Kaldur’ahm/Jackson Hyde is shown to have the physical characteristics of a Melanesian Islander—dark skin, blonde hair.)
For those of you who are ready to jump in that Atlantis should, if anything, be focused on the people who live on islands in the Atlantic Ocean rather than the Pacific, I hear and validate you—but despite Plato’s initial positioning of the island somewhere in the Atlantic, for centuries, people have been theorizing of its location in places like Antarctica, Indonesia, and even Cuba.
Obviously Plato’s interpretation is paramount, since he created the idea of it in the first place, but I would argue that it makes more narrative sense to connect Atlanteans to people who have strong cultural links to the ocean, which is the strongest thematic element, than it does to connect them to a particular location.
And this is why this doesn’t just matter in terms of representation, but actual storytelling—which is not just why this casting choice is such a big deal but also why we deserve more casting and/or redesigns like this. We now have a concrete, cultural context for Aquaman and Atlantis that only strengthens its existing themes. Aquaman is a prominent environmentalist, and this makes even more sense with him presented as being of Pacific Islander descent when it’s the Pacific Islands who often stand to lose the most in issues like global warming and pollution. This redesign provides a new opportunity for the writers to draw on Pacific Islander cultural tradition, history, and current events to make a newer, richer, and hell, more realistic Aquaman, if such a thing exists.
This story is 100% better for the appearance of a Native Hawaiian in it. I believe in this Aquaman because I can see that he was born of a people who have stayed connected with the ocean for hundreds of years. I believe in this Atlantis because it stops being a clever gimmick for the use of our story and starts being a real place grounded in fact and history.
I cannot think of a casting choice or redesign that has done more for a character. I cannot think of a presentation that has made me so strongly think: Wow, that actually makes sense. I cannot think of a character reworking that feels so embarrassingly obvious. It is the most inspired decision in comics for a very, very long time.
These are the kinds of casting choices and narratives that we deserve. This should be the new standard. I want actors and character backgrounds that enhance the stories we’re telling, rather than relying upon what we’d been given previously. I want a Pacific Islander Aquaman to appear prominently in the comics. I want a black Black Canary who has responded to the stereotype of emotional/angry black women by keeping quiet—until she’s had enough and starts to scream. I want a Wonder Woman whose misunderstanding and disregard of the patriarchy is such that she is never depicted with shaved underarms or legs.
I want all this because we deserve it. I want all this because it’s 2015.
I want it because Jason Momoa showed me I can have it.
And I’m accepting nothing less.