On the face of it, the winter’s billion dollar hit is an epic comic book come to life. But like the comic book genre of literature (yes, we are calling it that, Bill Maher!) it touches upon what we might call classic moral themes.
The question of belonging is the core theme of Aquaman. Where does Arthur – a ‘half breed’ as Atlanteans cynically call him – belong? Neither to the land nor to the sea, it seems. Where does, for that matter, Atlanna, the queen of Atlantis, who finds love on land, in Arthur’s father , belong? Where does Thomas Curry belong, as a man who lives at the edge of the sea, literally – as a lighthouse keeper – and metaphorically – as someone who has lost his love to the endless sea?
The resolution of all these dilemmas come at the end of the film, as Arthur defeats his greatest foe – that is his own self doubt – and his brother Orm, and becomes the rightful king in the eyes of his people.
The idea of a rightful king is the second big question in the plot of Aquaman. Now, Orm, on the face of it, has every possible quality to be the ‘right’ king. He is loved by his people – they cheer him on even when he battles Arthur in their first combat – then, he is immensely accomplished in various skills, as opposed to Arthur who is, well, a surface dwelling, half breed drunk. Most important of all, Orm claims to have the best interests of his people at heart, wanting to end the perennial problem of their life world being polluted by the surface dwelling civilisations.
Or does he?
Now, overtly, this might seem to be the case. But is going to war against the surface dwellers really in the best interest of Atlanteans? A war will inevitably bring death and destruction to all, even if Orm is successful in laying waste to the surface world. Would it not be better, as the Fisherman King suggests, to gradually engage with the surface dwellers, and attempt to educate them?
The second thing to consider is whether Orm is a righteous king and not just the rightful one. The answer is – no. He uses deception, murder, and war to get his way. For a leader, the means must be as important as the ends. Orm does not qualify on either count. All he has, is his breeding and his blood.
In this, Aquaman refers back to some themes touched upon on the earlier DCEU films. Especially, Man of Steel. For those who haven’t seen it, the core conflict in Man of Steel which propels the plot is between Superman, or Kal-el’s father, Jor-El, a scientist, and Zod, a military general, on the planet Krypton. The planet is on the brink of collapse. Jor-El believes this has happened because the Kryptonians implemented selective breeding too rigorously, taking away the creativity, imagination and empathy of their successive generations. Zod, on the other hand believes, selective breeding wasn’t implemented strictly enough. Not to go too deep into Man of Steel, in the end, Jor-El’s son, Kal-el, a natural born with a ‘random’ natural personality, is able to defeat Zod, who has bred and trained as a warrior all his life. Thus, proving that Jor-El was right.
(These themes recur in all the DCEU films. A matter for some other time.)
Now, at the end of Aquaman, Arthur proves to be not only the rightful king – because he wields the symbol of kingship, the ancient trident of the kings of Atlantis – but also, he emerges as the righteous king. In contrast to Orm who kills people to get his way, Arthur regrets even his choice of not saving a murdering criminal from death he arguably brought on himself. Also, throughout the film, Arthur continuously puts his life at risk to save people. Finally, when he has the chance to crush Orm, he chooses empathy. Of course, it’s not in Arthur’s nature to kill, so not killing Orm is only expected from him. But even after Orm has been defeated, is being led to prison, Arthur makes an offer ‘to talk’ things out, when Orm is ready.
Finally, let us answer our two questions. What does it take to be a true king? The king must be rightful and righteous. In a monarchy, where bloodlines determine succession, that is the criteria of rightfulness. In a democracy, it is having won free and fair elections. The criteria for righteousness are the same for all leadership positions! One must be kind, fair, just.
The second question of belonging is answered in the end too. Queen Atlanna, as she calls for an end to fighting between her two sons, says that the division between the land and the sea is an illusion. There is only one world! Similarly, one could say, the divisions between the Atlanteans are an illusion, because they, ultimately are, one people. The idea is to see beyond the artifice of divisions that emerge over time, and only then the unity of our collective roots begin to emerge. Where do we belong? The answer lies in that quest.
It takes heroism to see this, and righteous leadership to show that to a people one leads. That is the moral of this Arthurian story.