The Secret to Aquaman’s Global Success

When I was visiting my parents over the holidays, we had a family movie night. I took my mom and sister to Aquaman because of all the unexpectedly good things we’d heard about the movie about the guy who talks to fish and because dad doesn’t like superhero movies. Afterward, when my sister went to go get ice cream with a friend, I chatted with my mom about the film on the way home.

Because my mom has always been so busy taking care of my dumb ass, it’s easy for me to forget that she’s a pretty big drama fan. Before the kids were born she learned most of her English from American TV like the original X-Files, and now that we’re both grown adults living away from home she watches a lot of Chinese period dramas. She loves the set design, which befits a woman who got her degree in architecture while raising two children. But American action movies are not her thing, which is why it surprised me to find out that she thought the movie was awesome!

Aquaman is a film with a basic, but very ubiquitous story structure. It’s a simple hero’s journey arc, with relatively few complex character relationships. When Rob was talking about the similarities to other superhero movies, this was basically what he was talking about. The film doesn’t do anything new, strictly speaking. But these simple beats and ideas are what make the film able to work across cultures, which perhaps helps explain how the film broke 900 million USD at the box office, with over 70% of that coming from overseas.

For example, Aquaman descends to the darkest depths of the deepest ocean (the one in Jules Verne’s work!) to get a weapon that will allow him to vanquish the bad guys. The “darkest depths” that Thor and Black Panther venture to are more metaphorical hells, like confronting yourself and your own beliefs, but from them, both heroes emerge, one with a literal weapon and one with a figurative one. But the theme stands out when it’s more literal, which is why the heroic western King Arthur gets a weapon from a body of water watched over by a lady.

Or wait, are we talking about Sun Wukong, the eastern Monkey King who takes a golden pole-arm from a monster and leads a battle against the emperor? Because that’s how my mom saw it, and I highly doubt she’s the only one. Arthur Curry is indeed more of a fun-loving trickster who learns responsibility on a journey across the land, in contrast to King Arthur’s reputed chivalry. Heroes frequently get their weapons after descending to some dark hell. Both the weapon and the hell can be literal or metaphorical, like the self-confidence necessary to fight or the deepest depths of the ocean.

As for the journey across the land, my mom’s appreciation for scenic design showed itself when she brought up how much she liked the environments, as CG as they were. She liked how the film showed all sorts of different locales, and it was like being on a journey yourself. A lot of action movies do flyover drone shots over famous landmarks with location titles, but my mom’s remarks brought to mind the way some blockbuster films like the Furious franchise distinguish themselves by making the location a big part of the action at all times. Tokyo Drift is named after a city, and it doesn’t let you forget it. Hey, wasn’t there a Greek guy who went on a journey to lots of whimsical and interesting places? Oddjob? Orpheus? …Hm, it’ll come to me eventually.

These story structures exist because they work, and while details and complexity can make a film more interesting, they can also make it hard to understand outside of certain cultural contexts. But a simple story arc can allow one to surf over the majority of these contextual cues and helps the audience by use of these universally understood themes. Even cringe-y dialogue can be toned back in subtitling and dubbing, and, with good translators, can even be transformed into something actually clever. My mom doesn’t get pop culture jokes, but she can certainly read the facial expressions that arguing protagonists throw back and forth in close-up.

And of course, let’s not forget the bombastic action, which itself mixes foot-chases, one-on-one fighting showdowns, and fantastic CGI powers. All choreographed with clean beats and excellent camerawork that makes it impactful and easy-to-follow. James Wan even used the “Hong Kong hit cut,” as described in that Every Frame A Painting video that you’ve probably watched! Yet the action never got too bloody or violent for my mom’s decidedly PG tastes. When we got home, she immediately admonished my dad for not coming along to see such a “fun to watch” movie.

So thanks mom, for giving birth to me and keeping me fed and clothed and taken care of, and also for helping me understand how Aquaman transcend cultural boundaries and has made so much money. Next time we’ll make dad pay for popcorn.

Hans Qu: All I do all day is think about cartoons.