This post contains SPOILERS for Aquaman.
I have noticed that a lot of people, both professional critics and random people in comment sections, seem to completely write off a story if the plot feels at all familiar to them. If they can guess any aspect of what’s coming, the story is trash. This worries me because it seems that both critics and average viewers are thinking mainly on a plot level, and not seeing that even mainstream stories (or the good-ish ones, at least) have themes and motifs that recur throughout the narrative.
Additionally, because of this plot-level thinking, there are entire essays and videos dedicated to 1) trying to figure out the internal logic of fictional universes (spoilers: there are almost always plot holes and inconsistencies), or 2) nitpicking lines or moments that the reviewer didn’t like.
An example of the first kind of video/essay is this 10-minute video of a guy trying to figure out how the Tablet of Akhmenrah works in the Night at the Museum franchise. While I agree with him that the Tablet probably imbues the statues (like Teddy Roosevelt and Sacagawea) with the souls of the people they represent, I think that he spends too much time trying to make the Tablet’s behavior throughout the series make consistent sense. NATM is a silly franchise (though it has its merits in terms of themes and character development), so the Tablet works whichever way the screenwriters want it to work to advance the plot. Yes, sometimes the inner works of fictional plots and plot devices really are that simple.
The Honest Trailer for Moana is an example of the second kind of video/essay, especially in how they try to assert that the song “How Far I’ll Go” only exists to capitalize on the massive success of “Let It Go” from Frozen. That is both a complete misunderstanding and a gross oversimplification of the role that “How Far I’ll Go” within the narrative of Moana. Both “How Far I’ll Go” and “Let It Go” are examples of an “I Want” Song, which is a trope in both Disney movies and the larger canon of American musical theatre where the story’s protagonist states what he or she want to achieve or attain over the course of the narrative. “Part of Your World” from The Little Mermaid, “I’m Wishing” from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and “Go the Distance” from Hercules are all examples of “I Want” Songs. So in reality, what appeared to the folks at Screen Junkies to be a cash-grab rip-off of a previous song from the same company was, in fact, just an application of the same trope in two different films.
My frustration with these two lines of plot-level thinking brings me to Aquaman.
I haven’t read many reviews for Aquaman because I didn’t want the kinds of criticisms I listed above to taint my first screening of the film. I did read the review printed in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the author of which really liked Jason Momoa as Aquaman, but didn’t like the rest of the movie, claiming that it had lots of exposition. *beleaguered sigh* Do people who like to point out exposition in speculative fiction movies also enjoy pointing out when someone is about to die in a horror movie? If speculative fiction didn’t have exposition, we’d never understand what’s going on in the world of the story, and it often comes off as clunky in visual media (film and television) because it has to be worked into dialogue in order for it to reach the audience. Anyway, Aquaman‘s Your Mileage May Vary page* on TVTropes.org points out that many reviews of the film, including the positive ones, stated that the film retreads a lot of tropes and plot points seen in the previous superhero film and Chosen One narratives. That is true; it has a pretty standard superhero plot. However, the film is still very entertaining, and I’d say that for me, the most interesting narrative innovation is not in its plot or its characters, but in its main motif: the motif of dynasties.
*”Your Mile May Vary” pages exist for every fiction work on TV Tropes, and they exist to showcase tropes that are considered high subjective.
What’s a motif? Dictionary.com’s first listed definition for the word motif is “A recurring subject, theme, idea, etc., especially in a literary, artistic, or musical work.” Merriam-Webster’s first definition for motif is “a usually recurring salient thematic element (as in the arts); especially: a dominant idea or central theme.” So a motif is generally a set of ideas that furthers the themes of the story, but isn’t always explicitly spoken about. In the Aquaman‘s case, dynasties are a concept that shape the story and the characters’ roles in it, but no ever stops to talk about how they work. In fact, the story assumes that we already know how dynasties and monarchies work in terms of birthright and crowns passing from parent to child. Additionally, Aquaman features not one, but two dynasties, and that’s notable because similar superhero films from Marvel (the Thor films and Black Panther, respectively) only feature one dynasty per franchise.
The first dynasty I want to tackle is the Royal Family of Atlantis, namely Aquaman/Arthur Curry and his younger half-brother, King Orm.
Orm is the true-born son of the late King Orvax and Queen Atlanna. Arthur/Aquaman, however, is Queen Atlanna’s bastard son with a humble human lighthouse keeper, Thomas Curry. In most stories of dynastic crises, Orm would be the hero, defending his kingdom from a base-born usurper. That sort of true-born son vs. bastard son conflict is at least as old as the Edgar (true-born) vs. Edmund (bastard) subplot in King Lear. Generally, the bastard is a threat to the ruling dynasty and there for the status quo, which must remain intact. Interestingly, both Thor and Black Panther play this scenario straight*, while Aquaman flips it on its head. In this film, Arthur is the hero, a reluctant monarch who is sent by his mentor, Vulko, to challenge Orm for the throne because Orm is an arrogant, reckless warmonger. While Arthur is a goofy jock, he’s a good person who cares about helping others; Orm was clearly trained to rule, and can maneuver his way through court politics, but he cares more for his own ego and angst than he does for the well-being of his people. Orm fails to understand that going to war with the surface world (humanity) over excessive pollution will destroy more lives than it will save. Because of the way this conflict is flipped in its setup (heroic bastard vs. villainous true-born heir), it sends a new message about what it means to be a competent leader.
*Though Loki is the bastard son of a rival king, not Odin himself, and Erik Killmonger is T’Challa’s renegade cousin, not a base-born brother.
You see, Arthur, though he was born out of wedlock, sprang from a loving relationship. Therefore, even though his mother disappeared from his life when he was about four, he was raised by a loving father who raised him to be a good person, albeit a bit of an uncouth jock. He’s rough around the edges, but his heart is in the right place, and that’s the kind of ruler that Atlantis needs. Orm, on the other hand, was born to parents who were stuck in a loveless arranged marriage after his mother was forced to leave the man she loved and her elder son. Then, when his father found out about Arthur’s existence, he sacrificed Atlanna to The Trench and left her for dead. (The Trench is one of the Seven Kingdoms of Atlantis, and it’s essentially Underwater Horror Movie: The Ecosystem.)
So from these clues that we have to Orm’s backstory, we can tell that his upbringing was much less psychologically and emotionally healthy than Arthur’s upbringing probably was. Arthur still has a great relationship with father and loves him dearly, while Orm’s father is dead, and he tries to embody his late father’s ideals by declaring a fruitless war on the homeland of his mother’s bastard. The Aquaman review that I read complained that the movie doesn’t address the environmentalism that it brings up, but I would argue that Orm’s supposed “environmentalism” is just a front for his true anger at the mother that he sees as having abandoned him. The surface world is just an “other” that he can direct his rage toward as he consolidates his power so he can take up the title of Ocean Master, just as real-life tyrants (Hi, Trump and Putin!) aim their angry rhetoric and evil policies toward othered groups in the name of consolidating power. Orm wants to be in control of the oceans and declare war on humanity in the name of revenge for pollution because he cannot control his own rage over his own family history.
So flipping the typical bastard vs. true-born heir narrative sends a new message about who and what a rightful rule should be. Rather than being born into the correct royal house, Arthur is the rightful king of Atlantis because 1) he is “of two different worlds” and 2) not into waging pointless wars, which is always a nice quality for a leader to have. Other characters tell him that his duality (being half-Atlantean and half-human, though he is also the first biracial superpower to appear on the big screen) is part of what would make him a good king. So in some ways, his bastard status may actually help him, since he wasn’t raised with the entitlement of royalty. Additionally, since he was raised on the surface, he would probably be a better diplomat than Orm would be since he already understands the world that’s polluting the ocean. He also has zero desire to go to war with anyone. Arthur shows up when there’s trouble and puts an end to it, as he does on the Russian submarine at the beginning of the movie. He has zero desire to hurt David Kane (later Black Manta) and his father, Jesse, until they lash out at him.
This brings me to my next point about dynasties in this movie.
Dynasties don’t always involve royalty. In fact, if you Google the phrase “dynasty definition,” here are the two definitions you get:
- A line of hereditary rulers of a country.
- A succession of people from the same family who play a prominent role in business, politics, or another field.
The Royal House of Atlantis is an example of the first kind of dynasty, while Black Manta’s family is an example of the second kind. Yes, this movie gives us more than one kind of dynasty.
When we first meet David Kane, the Man Who Would Be Black Manta, he and his father, Jesse Kane, are leading their gang of pirates through a Russian submarine that they’ve taken over. During this scene, Jesse gives David a knife and says it belonged to David’s grandfather, who was one of the first Frogmen (scuba divers) during WWII. Grandpa Kane was apparently such a stealthy scuba diver that he was nicknamed “Manta” (like a manta ray). After the war, however, David’s grandfather was met with such large amounts of racism and marginalization that he used his skills to become a successful pirate, and his son and grandson followed in his footsteps. So what we have here is “a succession of people from the same family who play a prominent role” in international piracy. That is a dynasty, but it’s one borne out of marginalization, rather one that was exulted as royalty.
One of the things that piqued my interest when I started seeing trailers for Aquaman and reading promotional articles about it was the fact that it has a biracial hero who faces a white villain and a black villain. I wondered how the film would handle these villains, and it turns out that it handled them quite well. Both Black Manta and King Orm are dramatic, but sympathetic. You understand where they’re coming from, even though you hate what they’re doing. Also, (SPOILERS) Orm hires Black Manta to do some dirty work for him, but by the end of the film and its stinger (the extra scene in the middle of or at the end of the credits), Orm has let go of his plans for dominance and has resigned himself to becoming a prisoner. Black Manta, on the other hand, is just beginning his villainous journey. He’s ready to get full revenge on Aquaman, whom he blames for the death of his father (though it’s hard to blame Aquaman for abandoning two pirates who shot at him on a sinking submarine). Black Manta is, after all, David Kane, son of Jesse Kane. In the Bible, David, Son of Jesse, came from a humble background and became a great king of Israel. Therefore, Black Manta, by virtue of his Meaningful Name, is destined to be a great supervillain who comes from humble beginnings. He will do great things. “Terrible, but great,” as Mr. Ollivander would say.
Just as Aquaman’s journey to the throne of Atlantis is driven by his duality (in both species and race), Black Manta’s journey to supervillainy starts with his position as a pirate who belongs to a marginalized group. While Aquaman certainly isn’t the deepest* movie ever, it does bring up the fact that racial and ethnic discrimination can drive people to crime because it deprives them of legitimate opportunities to launch legitimate careers. If Aquaman is a king because his mother was a queen, then Black Manta is a supervillain because his grandfather was a pirate. Both characters build on the foundations that have been laid for them: Aquaman builds upon his parents’ gentle interracial and interspecies love, while Black Manta builds upon his family’s anger and frustration with being relegated to the margins and longing for something more.
*No pun intended, I swear.
So again, while Aquaman isn’t high art, it does have motifs that advance the themes of the story. By placing Arthur between David Kane and Orm, two different villains from two very different dynasties, the narrative emphasizes that his “of two different worlds” nature is a positive attribute. He can face down a privileged royal Atlantean villain like Orm and a marginalized human criminal villain like David Kane/Black Manta because his hybrid heritage. He is caught between the center (where Orm lives) and the margins (where Black Manta lives). Thus, the duality of his heritage puts him in a unique place where he is equipped to handle both kinds of threats. If you just pay attention to Aquaman‘s plot and don’t think about motifs or themes that the narrative presents, then you miss an extra dimension of the story. That is why we need to stop complaining about how stories’ plots don’t make sense or how they feel familiar to us. Plots are just one aspect of a story, and we need to learn to think beyond them.