Of all the superheroes who could anchor a big-budget movie, Aquaman seems like a pretty unusual choice. Yet DC has set the character up to star in the sixth installment of what’s commonly become known as the DC Extended Universe, a series of films kicked off with Man of Steel in 2013. Game of Thrones alum Jason Momoa’s take on the watery King of Atlantis gets a lot of screen time in the newly released Justice League, and filming has already wrapped on a solo Aquaman adventure set to come out late 2018.
Casting that charismatic Momoa helped it all come together, but there were over a decade of twists and turns that helped transform Aquaman from serving as the butt of endless Super Friends jokes to a lynchpin in DC’s attempts to create a cohesive world.
Attempts to bring Aquaman to the big screen date back to 2003, when producers Alan and Peter Riche picked the character up. Best known at the time for schlock comedies like Tomcats and the Starsky & Hutch reboot featuring Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson, they envisioned their Aquaman film to be “a goofy screwball comedy.”
“Their thought was ‘since he’s such a stupid character let’s play that up,'” an anonymous source told Comic Book Resources at the time. While few other details exist, it’s not hard to summon visions of Owen Wilson in those orange and green tights. Then again, Riche went on to produce the pretty solid Legend of Tarzan movie in 2016 so who knows how this Aquaman could have turned out?
An Aquaman film also served as a punchline for Entourage, starting with the HBO series’ second season in 2005, which treated the role of Aquaman as one step above co-starring in an Olsen twins movie in an ongoing gag. It wasn’t all mockery, though. The movie ends up being directed by James Cameron and goes on to become the highest-grossing movie of all time.
“Jim Cameron was joking around saying ‘We should really do this thing!'” Entourage producer Mark Wahlberg said in 2006 when asked if he’d ever consider a superhero role. “Everybody’s all like we should do Aquaman together.” Around the same time, the Smallville team shot a pilot for an Aquaman TV series that never made it to series. By then, Warner Bros. was getting serious about putting more DC properties onto the big screen after a solid start with Christopher Nolan’s Batman films. And Aquaman was in the mix thanks to a Justice League film, scheduled for a 2009 release, that came close to being made by director George Miller (of Mad Max fame).
How close? All the heroes had already been cast. Miller’s film was full of fresh faces, with Armie Hammer playing Batman, DJ Cotrona as Superman, and Megan Gale as Wonder Woman. Santiago Cabrera was set to play Aquaman, but a Writers Guild strike shut down production and then The Dark Knight made a billion dollars. Suddenly Warner Bros. wasn’t as excited about having two different Batmans running around at the same time, and Justice League was scrapped.
There was another brief blip on the Aquaman movie radar in 2009 when Leonardo DiCaprio’s Appian Way production company was said to be developing DC titles including Aquaman and Black Adam (which currently has The Rock attached). But serious Aquaman talk really kicked into gear when Geoff Johns became Chief Creative Officer of DC in 2010 and rebooted the entire line of comics.
One of the characters getting a fresh start was Aquaman, with Johns taking a special interest in the character, writing the first 25 issues of the new comic. At the time, Aquaman was kind of a mess. His hand had been eaten off by piranhas and replaced by a harpoon, and he’d seen fresh attempts to redefine his character come and go over the years. Johns’ story arc worked hard over the next three years to established Aquaman as a serious character with legitimate powers and the underwater realm of Atlantis as a compelling backdrop.
“When someone says to me, like ‘Aquaman sucks,’ I get really bothered by it,” Johns said with a laugh at the 2017 San Diego Comic-Con. “Then I want to write the book. Characters that kind of need help, I like helping. Helping to illustrate or clean up characters that people might not give a second look at. And it’s how I connect with people, because if I like Aquaman and someone else says ‘Oh my God I like Aquaman too,’ it’s cooler. If someone says ‘I like Batman,’ well … everyone likes Batman!”
Things snowballed in 2014 when Zack Snyder cast Jason Momoa as Aquaman for a cameo in the 2016 film Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice that set up Justice League and an Aquaman solo movie to be directed by James Wan, whose credits include Fast 7 and the Conjuring films. Critics weren’t impressed with Dawn of Justice, which continued the trend of DC movies being too dark, too long, and too morose for their own good. But out of the messes that were Batman v Superman and Suicide Squad came positive change. Johns was brought on board as the president of DC Entertainment based on his success revamping the DC comics universe, and the treatment he and James Wan wrote up for Aquaman began filming in August of 2016.
It’s too early to know whether Aquaman will connect with Justice League fans, but DC Entertainment is putting the same confidence into his movie potential that Johns gave to the Aquaman comic back in 2010. With the charismatic Momoa starring and DC proving with Wonder Woman that they can get things right, we could be on the verge of a surprising development: an Aquaman film that has all the elements needed to become a great superhero movie.