Memo to Dueling ‘Aquaman’ Writers: Don’t Be Afraid to Involve Real Environmental Issues

By  · Published on August 13th, 2014


At last, an actual Aquaman movie is on the way. It’s well-known (if not official) that Jason Momoa is playing the sea-dwelling superhero in Justice League, likely appearing first in cameo form in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Via The Hollywood Reporter, now we also know that Warner Bros. and DC Entertainment are pushing a solo installment for Aquaman, with two screenwriters hired to separately churn out their take on the character with the hopes that one of them will be perfect. Those writers are Will Beall, who is really only known cinematically for Gangster Squad, and Kurt Johnstad, who worked with Justice League franchise mastermind Zack Snyder on 300 and its sequel, 300: Rise of an Empire, and also penned the script for Act of Valor.

Neither sounds like an amazing prospect, but the competition could bring out the best in each of them. I would attempt to lend them some guidance – because I’m sure they’re both happily scouring the internet for not only the demands of fans but also the ideas of non-fans – but I won’t even pretend to have a clue about where the character and his storylines have gone in the 20 years or so since I avidly read his comics. And frankly, even though I was plenty into Aquaman as a marine-life-loving kid, I can’t recall a whole lot about his background or major conflicts anyway. I remember he got a harpoon hand and a beard and went shirtless in an effort to be gritty and hip, but I don’t have a single memory of any of his enemies or which would make a great on-screen villain. Nor, honestly, do I care about any of that stuff. Yet.

What I am interested in is how an aquatic superhero would have to exist in a relatively realistic modern world, as much as we accept Snyder’s DC universe to be. Sure, Aquaman could just deal with his underwater realm and face problems specific to Atlantis, but Guardians of the Galaxy aside, superhero movies of today are most popular when relatable in an Earthly grounded plot. It’s neat to see Krypton at the beginning of Man of Steel and Asgard in spurts in the Thor movies, but we like to see those aliens’ adventures and battles on our planet. This will be the same with Aquaman, albeit with more allowances made for scenes in the seas, just a lot of surface and near-surface action rather than all in the depths of the ocean. We should anticipate a lot of stuff on ships and offshore oil drilling rigs and islands like the Midway Atoll.

The latter two settings are significant as involving real-world environmental issues. It’s wrong to think that the DC cinematic universe would be a perfect world where something like the Deepwater Horizon oil spill doesn’t happen or, more so, where there is no Great Pacific Garbage Patch and its pollutants that wash up on the Midway Islands. If superhero movies want to be identifiably edgy and true to our contemporary problems, Aquaman should be fighting the dolphin-slaughtering industry seen in The Cove and should be concerned about climate change and its affect on the size of hurricanes and about overfishing and other conservation issues. It doesn’t have to be cheesy, like so many environmentalism-themed movies have been before, and it doesn’t have to be a political turn-off, not any more than the current events seeping into the conservative-minded Dark Knight trilogy was.

Real environmental issues don’t have to be the central angle of the movie, either. They should just be addressed. Aquaman is the king and protector of the sea, and he has to go up against anything posing a threat to it (we can assume his link to the other Justice League heroes will be through Man of Steel’s World Machine and what it was doing out in the middle of the Indian Ocean). That could even mean he goes up against Somali pirates, though Captain America: Winter Soldier sort of went there already. Aquaman has to be something unique. And it really can be, given that we haven’t yet seen a superhero movie set primarily in the ocean. But we don’t need something that is primarily a clone of other superhero movies simply transplanted to Aquaman’s environment. Let that environment instead inspire something we’ve never seen before in any way, shape or form.

Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.