This is the third in a series of pitches for the rebooted DC Movies. I have thoughts about how to retool Aquaman to draw out the elements of him that are unique, and build out his own niche within the broader DC landscape, none of which include turning him into the most obnoxious dude in your frat (and you know from obnoxious- you were in a frat [I kid- many of my best friends are obnoxious]). But I’ll refer you to that explainer post for info on the whys and wherefores, and try to stick to narrative here.
We start on a beach by a lighthouse, an idyllic couple stroll as their child, three years old, frolics in the surf. Adult Arthur narrates, telling us he always took after his mother. They explore the coast, looking at crabs and creatures. She makes sure he’s gentle with the creatures, despite his youth. Arthur’s narration tells us he always felt a kinship to the oceanlife.
His father… saw in it a different kind of life. We see him fishing, the crazy, dangerous, storm-riddled fishing they make reality TV out of. But we cut back to the beach. Young Arthur is smiling, but his expression changes as the surf runs red. Sea creatures float to the surface, dead. At first, Arthur’s father doesn’t know what to make of it, but his mother does- it’s a message, written in blood, to her. If she doesn’t come home, and now, the bloodshed will never end. She walks into the ocean, and disappears, as Arthur’s father holds the boy back, knowing he can’t understand what he’s seeing.
Later, he takes the boy fishing, trying to teach him his trade. But Arthur is horrified, certain he can feel the pain and terror of the fish. His father is understanding, but it opens a rift between them. Arthur loves his father… but he can never look at him the same way. Still, he tries to raise the boy as best he can, spinning wild-sounding yarns of Atlantis. His parents ignite in him twin obsessions: ocean life and archaeology. The day Arthur goes off to school, his father waves goodbye, and walks into the ocean, the same as his wife had.
Arthur graduates with a doctorate in both obsessions he inherited from his folks. But the more he studies, the more he learns, the more he begins to believe that his father knew more about Atlantis than his tall tales would imply. He manages to trace some artifacts to dig sites, with still further clues. A jealous colleague publicizes that Arthur is hunting Atlantis, that he’s a fantasist, wasting the school’s money and threatening its good name. His funding dries up, just as he reaches the most expensive portion of his research: underwater excavation. Reluctantly, he finds an outside sponsor in Hyde and Seek, a family salvage company with a reputation for acquiring rare antiquities for the highest bidder.
The Hydes have been developing proprietary diving tech, exoskeleton diving suits that are both stronger and lighter than the kinds of wearable submarines usually used at depth. They’re basically Iron Man suits built around diving. These are 90% of the way to Black Manta’s eventually power armor suit, with the main exception being there are lights that shine from the eyes, but they don’t shoot energy- yet. There are only two of them, so Arthur is going into the water with the Hyde patriarch.
Their underwater drone finds a site right where Arthur expected, and the Hydes broach divvying up the spoils. Arthur tells the Hydes legitimate museums and collections will pay a finder’s fee- that they can have all of that- he’s here for the discovery. The Hydes pretend to accept, but once in the water the elder Hyde sabotages Arthur’s gear, so that his oxygen will deplete too quickly, and his gauge won’t read properly. Arthur is entranced by the find, seeing not just proof of Atlantis but proof that this is just a way station outside the greater city- that he’s nearly at the answers he’s spent his entire life seeking. Hyde, both impatient and concerned every second risks their find, severs Arthur’s oxygen line, and his suit begins to fill with water.
Arthur convulses, ‘drowning,’ before his eyes shoot open. He takes off his helmet, and touches the place on his neck where his gills are pulling in water to ‘breathe.’ Arthur swims after Hyde, cutting the distance with great speed, and sabotages the elder Hyde’s tank the same way Hyde sabotaged his, causing him to drop a container of treasure. He swims down for it, even as Arthur reaches out to him with his mind. “Leave it. Your oxygen is running out.”
“Screw you,” Hyde thinks, “I’m not leaving empty-handed.” Then he realizes he didn’t ‘hear’ it with his ears, but in his head. “How am I hearing your thoughts?”
Sea life swim past them, each with its own unique voice. “You hear him the way he hears us- all creatures, above and below, evolved from the oceans- and the oceans recognize their champion.”
Hyde still refuses, and picks up the chest. But he’s slowing, and we start to hear the slowed thumping of his heart. He gets about halfway back, before passing out. Arthur swims to him, lifting him to safety aboard the vessel, but Hyde is having a heart attack. His son attempts CPR, but to no avail. “What did you do?” he asks Arthur, but Arthur isn’t equipped to handle this moment; he tried, damnit, and being confronted with his failure so immediately is more than he can bear, and he returns to the water. To the autistic son, it looks like a cold-blooded murder- one that will fuel his rage, aided by the one red gem that his father managed to hold onto from the treasure hoard that will hypercharge Black Manta’s diving suit.
Arthur’s upset. He sits in the ruins, halfway hoping to drown. “I shouldn’t have touched his tank,” he lectures himself. “I was so angry.”
“Don’t be so hard on yourself,” a Prickleback tells Arthur. “My neighbor, a usually gentle hermit crab, got surprised by a passing school of clown fish, and pinched me, and I got so upset I ate him. It’s the natural order of things; you shouldn’t anger someone big enough to eat you.”
“I… didn’t eat him,” Arthur says.
“Not in the sense of consumption, no. But you struck back.”
“Don’t listen to him,” a different hermit crab says. “According to him it’s perfectly all right to vent your frustration at anyone weaker. Not that I think you blaming yourself makes sense. Seems it was pure hubris that killed the diver.”
“I’m having a nervous breakdown, aren’t I?” Arthur thinks.
“Let’s examine that, shall we?” an octopus asks, floating in front of him. “While certainly this is a unique blend of circumstances, is it more likely you’re hallucinating, or that your perceptions are, indeed, authentic. Wait… you didn’t eat one of the purple cucumbers, did you? Those can cause hallucinations.”
“Only in cephalopods, you eight-legged snob,” the cucumber barks back.
“But the most important question, Arthur, is what do you want?” the octopus asks. “You can swim back to the land, avoid the water and sealife at all costs. Whether or not this is an hallucination, you can convince yourself of that. But is that what you really want?”
“I want to know the truth. About my mother. About my father. About Atlantis.”
“That’s a good lad. Come with me.” They proceed back to the chamber where Hyde tried to murder Arthur. The symbols on the wall, only a handful Arthur was able to translate with years of study, begin to be legible to him, with glowing English letters hovering over their Atlantean equivalents.
“This language is ancient. It’s a part of the sea, and all the life that dwells within it. You could see it, just a little, even on land, just as you could feel who you were, even on land. But here, under the sea, you’re connecting with parts of yourself you never knew were there.”
“How do you know all this?”
“I’ve lived here most of my life, hearing whispers from the other creatures about Atlantis, its history, its myths, and its champions. For every age, there has been one- every age but this one. Because you were lost, marooned on the desert surface. Until now. And I know you the way every creature in this ocean does. You are a part of us, of everything. You’re finally home.” As he says that, they crest the hill, and the magnificent city of Atlantis sprawls beyond them.
Arthur causes something of a commotion, because the ocean life are following him. And the Atlanteans can feel it, too. This isn’t just some random stumbling upon their home, they feel the same pull as the rest of the sealife towards Arthur, even if it’s more distant. And he, in turn, follows what he feels coming off of them, that he’s needed, in the city center.
Inside, Ocean Master is orating. He views the presence of the Hyde and Seek ship so close to their capital as the last straw. Man has been polluting the oceans, damaging the climate in such a way that temperatures are becoming far more volatile, and now they are seeking Atlantis herself. The time has come to reveal themselves, and strike. Half of those present rise and cheer. The rest are silent. But one of them in particular recognizes the stranger who swam in, and abandons her seat at the head of the opposition. She is Atlanna, Arthur’s mother. She embraces him, and feels in him something she knows the ocean has been lacking. She turns towards the Ocean Master, and gives a masterful oration of her own, lamenting that the time for action is here, getting some of the pro-war Senators on board, before the turn, where she says that they’re better than humans, more civilized. She suggests they send her son as envoy, to announce to the world that the oceans are inhabited, and deserve a place at the table; she tells them he is the oceans’ champion. Orm argues against it, but there just isn’t support for a first strike when the opposition leader is offering her son to sue for peace.
They hold a celebration of Arthur’s return- the once prince of Atlantis is home. Atlanna tells him she returned to try to save the kingdom, and for a time, succeeded. However, when Arthur’s father came to her, Orm threatened to have him exposed and killed; she gave up her kingdom to save him and avoid civil war. She tells Arthur not to trust Orm. She takes him to see his father, who is kept in a reasonably well-appointed cell- and we understand why when Atlanna joins him inside. He’s a prisoner, and she lives inside the cell with him. “I’d complain, but the food’s not half bad, and it’s got one hell of a view,” his father says, staring adoringly at Atlanna.
Arthur insists he’s not a politician, which is why she sends Mera, her right hand. The pair set off the next morning, planning to go to the United Nations and officially declare Atlantis a nation, and begin the likely arduous process of figuring out Atlantean territory on the world stage. They’re attacked en route by assassins, who torpedo their craft. With the help of a pod of whales, Arthur is able to destroy their ship, as well, though they manage to take Mera hostage, and keep her alive in the hopes of drawing him out.
Arthur is able to make it to a largely deserted island, where he’s able to use his understanding of historical warfare to craft some low-tech booby traps, and take out the assassins. Mera proves capable of freeing herself, and had actually remained a prisoner longer to continue to probe her captors for information, hoping for proof as to who is behind the attack.
Orm, meanwhile, is back in the Senate chamber where he presents ‘evidence’ that their diplomatic mission was attacked, that even attempts to hail the attackers and explain their peaceful mission didn’t dissuade their violence- because humans are just that bloodthirsty. Even some in Mera’s camp are willing to attack the surface, given that story- even if she refuses to believe her son is dead, or literally anything coming from Orm’s mouth.
Arthur and Mera arrive just as Ocean Master is about to lead the Atlanteans to battle. He’s still naive enough to figure that they can just pop up, and accuse Orm, and that will be that. She understands there’s a momentum to these things- too many people have hung their hats on the idea of war for it to just stop in its tracks. “We can’t stand by and watch innocent people die.”
“War is almost entirely innocent people dying,” she says solemnly.
“No. I mean I’m going to fight. If Atlantis needs to hit someone- I’ll give them someone else to hit.”
Arthur swims, alone, into the middle of Ocean Master’s march. He tells them all, telepathically, what happened. Orm speaks through his telepathy to them, too, denying his involvement. Arthur admits that his father is a human, and he was indeed raised among them. He knows the great and terrible things people do. But he is also Atlantean, and has seen one of them lie, and betray his oath, to secure more power. People, whether on the surface or in the ocean, aren’t good or bad because of where they live, or who their parents were, but because of who they are. He’s spent his whole life wanting to find Atlantis- he’d rather die than let Ocean Master risk either of his homes like this.
Ocean Master attacks, and reluctantly, so do some of the soldiers. But suddenly Arthur is joined by all kinds of ocean life. They’ve been rallied by the octopus; Arthur was risking himself, but the animals know that he is their hero, too, and what happens if there’s a war with the surface. “Protect the champion!” the octopus cries.
It’s a line, I think, to walk, because the Atlanteans are using weapons of war, but the animals don’t actually want to do anything but stem the loss of life, so you’d probably have kind of goofy attacks like dolphins teaming up to knock the ‘wind’ out of a soldier, then one of them swims off with their weapon. Ocean Master’s sea horse bucks him off, and I like the idea that something lands on Ocean Master’s helmet, and spends a lot of time there, both making him an ineffectual leader, and also ends up squirting some eggs on him.
I think the fighting ends when Atlanna arrives, and tells them to heed the wisdom of the ocean, and remember they are a part of it, “and not the ocean’s masters.” I think the fighting largely has ceased, by that point, anyway, since the soldiers are more annoyed and bemused by the animals. Arthur tells Ocean Master he has a little egg on his face, as he turns to swim angrily off.
Back in their congress, Ocean Master pushes for Arthur’s execution, as an enemy of the state, or at least, his expulsion. Mera leads Arthur’s father there, where he heckles Orm, as having had his son clean his clock the once already- then says it’s no way to talk to the rightful king of Atlantis. Orm stammers out that Atlanna renounced her crown. Arthur hears a voice he doesn’t recognize, but it’s old, and learned. “That’s not how I recall it.” Arthur is the only one who can understand the old squid, who has been with Mera always, as her attendant. But he is able, by concentrating, of projecting the squid’s recollections into the Senator’s minds.
The squid provides the ink Mera uses for all of her official duties, including, as Arthur’s father points out, their marriage certificate. Further, he was there the night Orm threatened the both of them, to expose their marriage, her ‘divided loyalties,’ that he could use resentment of the surface world to ignite a civil war, one that, win or lose, would deeply wound Atlantis. Her only choice was to abdicate, and he would promise no harm would come to them.
Everyone’s shocked, but Mera recognizes Arthur is going to kill Orm, and demands that the guards arrest Orm for treason. Atlanna raises a hand to calm the furor, after that, and assures them that whatever form of government Atlantis chooses, it will not rely on the divine right of kings and queens, nor on might making right.
Behind closed doors, she tells Arthur he could be king. He says he doesn’t want it. “The first mark of a good executive is not wanting the power,” she says gingerly, but she also tells him what he wants may not matter. She says ultimately Atlantis will choose its destiny- that their role is to shepherd it, whether from its battlements or seated on its throne. His father claps him on the back, and says he did exactly that for Atlantis, and the world, and they are both so very proud of the man he’s become.
In an end-credits scene, we see a team of marines take control of the Hyde and Seek vessel. General Wade Eiling and Amanda Waller are having a heated exchange. Eiling says the ship broke several treaties and maritime laws- he wants to play it heavy. Waller sees something in the boy’s eyes- sadness, but also rage. She plays a hunch, and they go inside to talk to the younger Hyde, cuffed in an interrogation room. “Arthur Curry stole your father from you. How’d you like a chance to gut him like a carp?” His eyes shoot up at Waller, full of anger, and we cut to black.