In distant pre-pandemic days of 2018, I dragged my family to the first Aquaman movie and was moved to blogging: “Seven Thoughts for the Seven Seas.” To my surprise, I later dilated those thoughts into a 2020 academic article, co-written with the brilliant medievalist and water-scholar James Smith, “Learning an Inclusive Blue Humanities” that used Aquaman and Moana to think about how the Indigenous traditions of Oceania are being translated into global cultures, and how a couple of white academics might ethically approach this material. I’m not a film scholar, but it was fun to write.
So of course I was fired up when it can time to pile the family into the Subaru and see Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom last night.
It wasn’t as good as the first one – sequels are hard – and I’m still confused about how the allegorical backstory works. But it was good fun, and while I don’t know that I’ll get all the way to Seven Thoughts on this one, here are a few spashes –
(I’m hoping that Ryan Poll, author of 2022’s Aquaman and the War Against Oceans, will have more and better-informed things to say!)
Ice Falling Down as Ecocollapse
One of the repeated images director James Wan uses in the movie, starting with the credit sequence and rising to a climax in the final battle beneath the Antarctic ice shelf, is the calving of a glacial wall. Vertical spires of ice break off, fall down, and soon the entire ice-face evaporates. Ice sheet collapse is, as recent books by Elizabeth Rush (The Quickening) and Jeff Goodell (The Big Melt) about the Thwaites glacier have emphasized, among the most-feared prospects in today’s fragile Anthropocene moment. While Aquaman 2 did not dig deeply into sea level rise or glacial structures, and Aquaman himself did not – alas! – seem to have any affinity for frozen water, the gorgeous images of ice falling vertically down provided a kind of visual doomsday refrain.
Atlantis and the Anthropocene
The climate politics of the film aren’t subtle – the big bad, a kind of underwater Lord of the Nazgul who had been buried deep in Atlantis’s past, threatens to emerge with an even faster-warming superfuel to break the world. Aquaman and his family, both on the human and Atlantean sides, stand for a fairly anodyne “we’ll fix the warming by all coming together” gestural eco-politics. But I do still enjoy, as I wrote about in the 2020 article, the movies’ semi-hidden subtext that presents Oceania as font of eco-wisdom. It seems to me that Atlantis might be best understood not just as a home of superhero wisdom figures, but as a collective representation (albeit in some versions a whitewashing) of the most geographically vast human community, the Indigenous peoples of Oceania, whose watery geography encompasses a vast triangle between Hawai’i, New Zealand/Aotearoa, and Easter Island/Rapa Nui. Early family scenes between Jason Mamoa’s Arthur/Aquaman, his father played by the great Maori actor Temuera Morrison, and the infant Arthur Jr., and a closing scene in which Arthur and his father dance the haka, demonstrate that the human side of the royal Atlantean family has roots in the cultures of Oceania. Despite the ghost-white spectral bodies of Patrick White as half-brother Orm and Nicole Kidman as the Queen Mother, I ended up thinking that Atlantis was basically a partly-digested fantasy of Oceania. Makes me want to read more eco-poetry by Craig Santos Perez and other Indigenous poets of Oceania!
Water Flowing Up
In a movie whose eco-politics are both fully conventional (global warming is bad!) and entirely gestural (we can fix it together when Aquaman reveals his hidden undersea kingdom in a press conference in lower Manhattan!), it’s hard to locate a counter-current. But I think a few visual jokes by James Wan suggested that flowing water – as opposed to fracturing ice – represents rebirth and possibility. The two most striking early scenes of warm water flowing up feature the giggling baby Arhtur Jr. peeing up into his father’s open mouth (yuck). The baby, who will later be kidnapped by the big bad, represents a happy future of warm water flowing, which his father more or less embraces. A less-developed reprise of flowing water also appeared later when the cephalopod Topo, a minor character who I wanted to see much more of, spits water on Aquaman as they invade the desert kingdom to rescue half-brother Orm.
(Really I would like an entire movie about Topo.)
Orm and Eco-Humor
Once again Patrick Wilson reprises half-brother Orm, who shifts from being Arthur’s rival and main villain in the first movie to being a brotherly sidekick ripe for redemption in the sequel. Orm had a tough run in the first installment – his basic point, that surface dwellers had fouled the oceans with industry and pollution, seems unarguably right, but empathetic and half-human Arthur wants to unify the land and sea rather than, in Orm’s perhaps more elegant solution, sinking the land. In Part 2, Orm has been imprisoned by the Fish Kingdom’s desert commandos (not sure why they have desert commandos, but whatever). Arthur rescues him, and the banter between them is probably the liveliest part of the movie. To make sure we recognize the intertexual jokes, Arthur at one point calls his half-brother “Loki” and threatens to send him “back to Azkaban.” Visual quotations also show the minions of the big bad as half-Nazgul and half the undead from the Pirates of the Caribbean movies. Redeeming Orm entails bringing him into his brother’s jokes, and eventually feeding him an extra greasy cheeseburger.
Undersea Witch King of Angmar Means What?
Late in the movie, Orm has a vision of an ancient Atlantean splinter-kingdom whose energy is the source of all evil and pollution. The long-thought-dead-but-really-just-frozen King Kordax is to blame! This Underwater Sauron also churns out greenhouse gases and acidifies the ocean, so when Orm and Arthur come together to defeat him, it’s a victory for the planet too. I must say this part confused me. The movie is mostly clear, as Orm especially shows and the Black Manta plot mostly makes clear too, that the cause of global warming is modern industrial capitalism among surface dwellers – ie, it’s us, especially those of us in rich nations who spend lots of money on popcorn and Milk Duds at the movies. But since it’s not really possible to support a war of revenge against the surface by Orm as Ocean Master – the first movie toyed with this idea briefly – the plot offloads all badness onto Undersea Sauron and his shimmering green zombie-spider crew. He apparently split off from Atlantis in distant prehistory, and Black Manta’s rediscovery of his evil Trident kicks off this movie’s plot.
But what does Kordax and his ancient evil represent? Original undersea sin? The Hawaiian god of death and darkness Kaneloa, who opposes the creator god Kane? But if an evil under Antarctica lies at the root of Anthropocene warming, doesn’t that somewhat let industrial emissions off the hook? Or maybe that’s the point, since Hollywood doesn’t want to make us feel too bad?
Black Manta Who?
Some of the film’s bad guy action, and also some of its moral confusion, comes from the supervillain Black Manta, a modern pirate who uses Atlantean tech to make himself an almost-match for Aquaman. But since for most of this movie Black Manta is under the spell of the Undersea Witch King, his own backstory – Aquaman left his father to die in the first movie – gets overwritten by Atlantean prehistory. It’s too bad, because Yayha Abdul-Mateen II is a powerful actor, even when he’s controlled by the big bad. Maybe his final fall into a mysterious under-glacier crevasse does not mean the end of the Manta? (Though online gossip shows no current plans for Aquaman 3…)
Anyway – worth a couple hours if you like this sort of thing!