By Talei Luscia Mangioni
A brawny Maui meets a modern Ariel, a Theatre of War, a Lovecraftian lair and a lost Atlantis in an Ocean, polluted and rising.
The sheer vastness of the world’s underwater expanse offers a pervasive provocation to the Western consumer, allowing for what scholar Chris Connery calls “the prime activator of the trope of the sublime: limitless, unfathomably deep, [and] indefinite”. This is perhaps why, in Aquaman (2018), director James Wan has created a visual chaos of symbolism drawn from popular culture to conceptualise the ocean’s fluidity and turbulence. However, for a story intended to be about the Atlantic, Aquaman spectacularly misappropriates imagery of the Pacific. This obfuscates the viewer’s comprehension of the Pacific, whilst simultaneously legitimising American historic hegemonic naval power and incentivizing its strategic build-up in the region through the affirmative militaristic logics of seeing the Pacific as the ‘American Lake’.
Though I would like to forget Aquaman, the film has undeniable reach. Grossing over $.11 billion worldwide, it is now ranked the fifth highest grossing film in 2018 and the twentieth highest grossing of all time. Pop cultural texts exploring the visualities of war (like Aquaman) adhere to Paul Virilio’s assertion that war and cinema have developed in “fatal interdependence”, ensuring the way in which “observation and destruction … develop at the same pace”. The film explores the tale of Aquaman, the half-human and half-Atlantean heir to the underwater Kingdom of Atlantis who embarks on a quest to prevent a war between the clashing worlds of ocean and land.
In the beginning, the film centres on the colonial assertions of the ‘half-caste’ identity of Aquaman, as contextualised by a history of military and colonial presence in Oceania. Arthur Curry (played by Kanaka Maoli Jason Momoa) is the result of two unlikely lovers: Tom Curry (played by Maōri Temeura Morrison), a humble fisherman living on the Maine coastline and Atlanna (played by Australian Nicole Kidman), the escaped queen of Atlantis, who having fled an arranged marriage has washed up on the seaside. While Pacific peoples express inextricable relationships with seascapes in their indigenous creation stories, in Aquaman there is an uneasy juxtaposition of Pacific people portrayed as solely terrestrially-bound, while the advanced Atlanteans (ambiguously cast as white) are positioned as endemic to the ocean. After Atlanna’s departure, Arthur is raised by his father in the lonely seaside town, harbouring a complex longing for the ocean. The protagonist does not feel a true sense of belonging until advisor to the Atlantean monarchy, Nuidis Vulko (British William Dafoe) teaches him the ways of the ocean, allowing him to become Aquaman.
A growing biracial horror subsumes the rest of the film, as land and ocean dwellers divide over Aquaman’s right to exist as sovereign: does the Pacific Islander belong to the ocean or not? Is his indigeneity authentic enough for ascension to monarch? Such discourses echo what Hawaiian scholar J. Kēhaulani Kauanui argues is the colonial “blood logic” entrenched by the American federal legal system of the Hawaiian state. Kauanui’s work illustrates the insidious ways that the “50-percent rule” of measuring Hawaiian status undermines Kanaka Maoli sovereignty. In its consistent re-inscription of the “is he, or is he not an Atlantean?” debate, the film opts to abide by a (re)colonial definition of racial purity through a framework which oddly compartmentalises indigenous peoples as land-based and white peoples as ocean-based. This ongoing racial interrogation pushes Aquaman to begin to accept that he is closer to a watered down-whiteness than landed earthy-brownness. Using the protagonist’s journey as a vehicle, the film imbricates the white supremacist rationality of the American nation-state with the ocean itself as it erases Aquaman’s Pacific Islander identity.
Parallel to this is the underdeveloped plotline of supervillain Black Manta (played by African American Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), whose character aligns with the trope of the un-saveable savage. In the comic books, Black Manta was kidnapped as a child and forced to work on labour boats, becoming a pirate. Considering the discursive signalling of Pacific blackbirding and labour trade of Melanesians, I am left to wonder why Aquaman, as a superhero, saw it his duty to save a Russian military command fleet from Black Manta and murder his father without mercy. Both Aquaman and Black Manta appear to have a complex relationship with their father figures stemming from detachment, but while Aquaman ascends into acceptance from the underwater white empire and is ultimately redeemed as the reigning King of Atlantis, it is Black Manta who is villainised, only to be used as a weapon of the white Atlantean military and later to be discarded.
Despite their racialisation, at the start of the film it is somewhat admirable that the Atlantean King, leading a coalition of the Seven Seas, decides to hold the surface dwellers accountable for their ongoing environmental damage, caused through moving military vessels and combat, pollution and climate change. The oceanic coalition’s method of attack is in the form of the ocean itself, generating large tidal waves to spew up ships and rubbish along the coast. The Atlanteans use of violence as a response is considered a form as resistance. However, playing into dystopian imagining of global warming, the film obscures the line between natural disaster and engineered warfare. The question of who should be accountable for exploitation of the ocean is thus muddled and confused, as the Atlantean use of force in response legitimises a military presence in the ocean as a form of defence.
This is reinforced by portraying the ocean as ‘the unknown’, both dangerous and unruly, through the Lovecraftian inspired sea monster of the Karathen (voiced by British actress Julie Andrews) and weapon wielding sea animals. In the final scenes, Atlanna implores Arthur/Aquaman to consider land and ocean as a united entity and force (ironic, coming from a white woman), and the conflict between ocean and land is pre-emptively quelled just as tensions were poised to erupt. Essentially though, the ongoing environmental exploitation of the ocean is never addressed. And beyond this, Aquaman does not seek to address it either in his assimilation to Atlantis. Rather than living up to his promise as the bridge between two worlds, Aquaman as the new monarch merely placates the Atlanteans and the surface dwellers as exploiters of his ocean. Normalising militarisation and environmental degradation of the ocean, he is blissfully complacent to the ongoing passage of American submarines deep below.
The ocean is centred as hosting conflict and resolution achieved through warfare, and in so doing is inimically reinforced as a site of terror and violence. This violent spectacle is aestheticized in deliberately palatable forms for young viewership, tapping into a continuing dialogue between media and military that encourages viewers to see the ocean as a site of empire, legitimising and normalising strategic occupation of seascapes. The Pacific Ocean is one of the most highly militarised spaces in the world, a status bolstered more recently by Western defence policies such as the Morrison Australian Government’s ‘Pacific Pivot’ and Trump’s Indo-Pacific strategy. Guided by a vision of American exceptionalism, Aquaman’s positive military imaginary reinforces a World War II vision of the Pacific ocean as the ‘American lake’.
Aquaman was made as if it’s designed to overwhelm and confuse. It is important to represent oceans as limitless and unbounded, because oceanic metaphors offer us stimulating ways of thinking about how we can relate to each other as kin of both land and sea. But Aquaman’s unbridled use of Pacific Islander symbolism is detrimental. It deploys archaic and problematic colonial categories such as ‘half-caste’, coldly narrativises the anti-black marginalisation of Black Manta, and neglects to address impacts of Western extractivism. The effect of these elements serves to depict the Western military physicality as embodied in Atlanteans as deserving in a place our oceans, sold through the allure of violent spectacle.
Talei Luscia Mangioni is a doctoral candidate in the School of Culture, History and Language, the Australian National University. Her current research aims to chart the Nuclear Free and Independent Pacific movement across Oceania through historical ethnography, braiding archival records and material objects, with oral histories of activists and artists. You can follow her on twitter here: @talei_luscia.