Aquaman

How do I even deal with the atrocity that is Aquaman? You probably know already that Aquaman is about a plot by the Atlanteans to attack the people who live on land, and so Aquaman has to become their king to save the world. But what you may not know is that this film is racist.

The only two black people in the movie are criminals (and also father and son). The black dad blows himself up when Aquaman (Jason Momoa) seemingly foils their attempt to steal a submarine from a bunch of white guys (Russians, as it happens).

Then that same submarine reappears to fool some of the Atlanteans into thinking that MV5BMzZjZTU2NjEtZTEzMC00YmRkLWIzZjUtMDczMWI4MDU4ODAxXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNTc5OTMwOTQ@._V1_the surface world is attacking them to obtain enough votes to attack the surface world. Turns out, one of the Atlantean human-shaped leaders had hired the black guys to steal the sub and fool another Atlantean human-shaped leader. Except then it also turns out that the leader who seemed to be fooled by the sub attack was actually aware it was fake news the whole time and went along with it anyway (and in case it is not clear, all the human shaped Atlanteans we see are white men, every last one, other than Aquaman’s love interest and Aquaman’s mom who are white women).

Then the surviving black guy is hired again by the Atlanteans to kill Aquaman and his love interest in Sicily, and the black guy is willing to go along with it because he blames Aquaman for his dad’s death. That plan fails, with the black guy apparently being killed by Aquaman, and also two non human CGI underwater leaders are either killed or maimed by the white underwater leaders who do not attempt any type of stolen submarine trickery on them at all.

So, to summarize the repeated, overt, MAGA-level racism (on the level of “Look at my African American over here!”):

1. The black son is called “Black Manta” so even when he wears a full suit of armor you can be sure that he’s not white.

2. No effort at all was put into fooling the two CGI leaders who weren’t on board with the plan to kill all humans. Again, those disposable leaders are the two that aren’t white men (and blond, blue eyed white men at that) – one is a merman voiced by a black guy and the other is a big brown CGI crab-man. So you might say the CGI leaders were less worthy of respect than the white ones or perhaps you’d say they came from “shithole” countries, if you were a racist.

3. The Atlanteans are really concerned with following certain rules, namely ones that prohibit going to war against us without four votes, while those same Atlanteans have no problem doing awful things to get those four votes, like killing the CGI underwater leaders who won’t vote the way you want in order to install a new leader who will. Which suggests a set of niceties for white guys that don’t apply to non-whites. Or that the nonwhites were asking for it by looking scary and not giving into what the white guys wanted. Po-tay-to, po-tah-to.

4. If the Atlanteans hadn’t bothered to steal the sub for fooling reasons, we wouldn’t have needed the black humans to steal anything. But then we’d have missed an opportunity to perpetuate the stereotype that black men are criminals.

Does it matter at all that the racist Atlanteans are the bad guys and they lose in the end? I don’t think it does. This movie is so dumb generally that it is not capable of coherent social commentary, and incoherent social commentary is worse than not saying anything. Further, if the film had wanted to make a point about the dangers of a racist political leader, it needed to make the racism a rallying point for Aquaman and those opposing that leader. In other words, for this movie to be on the right side of prejudice (i.e., against it), the racist Atlanteans needed to lose because of their racism. The non-racists needed to object to the racists’ offensive conduct and resist for that reason, but that never happens in Aquaman.  Instead, Jason Momoa’s character seems to buy into the same stereotypes as the Atlanteans when he leaves the black dad to die because the black guys killed some of the all-white sub crew.

Admittedly, Aquaman later says he learned a lesson from that experience but his application of that lesson is to provide mercy to the all-white Atlanteans. Which means Aquaman does not actually learn the RIGHT lesson, so neither does the audience.  As a result, the harmful stereotypes in Aquaman are perpetuated and normalized, and that’s very, very bad anytime but particularly bad in a film that is targeted at white males.

There’s so many other problems here but I won’t get into them because trafficking in stereotypes is the real issue here. Aquaman is intolerant and intolerable and you should avoid giving DC one more dime for this hugely problematic film.

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16 thoughts on “Aquaman

    1. Sean Post author

      I am not entirely sure it was intentional which is just as dangerous. There is an element of anti-racism in respect of Momoa’s half-breed status (being half human, half Atlantean) which doesn’t get resolved either, but that makes the black stereotypes even more jarring.

      I think we often oversimplify racism to an all or nothing question and we should look closer, because really there is the potential for racism or discrimination in a huge variety of ways. But that can seem overwhelming so it tends to be reduced and that puts us in the Aquaman zone. Aquaman might honestly be trying to speak positively about acceptance of “the other” in a general way but the stereotyping in this film overshadows any positive message it might have otherwise had.

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      1. Jay

        Atlanteans don’t just despise the “half-breed”, they also have strict divisions between the “high-born”, a term I quickly became disgusted with, and those not. But the movie never calls itself or its characters out on this shit.

        And even if the racist casting is unconscious, that obviously still points to a huge racist problem for us. The only black characters are the bad guys. Not cool. I suspect it was the comic book that made the decision ages ago, but this isn’t 1940 anymore. It’s 2018 and we don’t have to keep up with those harmful, hateful ideas. I thought Patrick Wilson’s character was going to break out a red MAGA hat at any moment, and that may have been a cool undercurrent if only the movie was aware of it.

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  1. Jay

    I didn’t like the movie at all. I thought the script was enormously bad. I didn’t enjoy the visual effects. I wanted out soon after it began. DC just can’t pull itself together.

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  2. fragglerocking

    I am so sad to read this, the trailer clips looked so cool, and I do like looking at Mr. Momoa. I usually buy my superhero movies on blu-ray to get the full visual & sonic effects, but I’ll give this a miss now. Sad-face.

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  3. The Telltale Mind

    I’m pumped to see this as I love the comics. I know that in the books, Black Manta was always African-American, so the casting was spot on and yes, the Atlanteans are all white, also true to form from the book. Could they have changed it up? Sure, but I think Wan was probably just staying true to the source material, as dated as some might think it is. I’ll reserve judgement until I see it though I am not sure I enjoy the political bent you mentioned.

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  4. msjadeli

    This is SO disappointing. With all of that glorious underwater CGI in the previews, it could have been magnificent. Makes me wonder who produced it and why they decided to go so lame. Hard to unravel where the money really comes from at times but… Thank you for the warning!

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  5. Lavanya

    I respect your point of view but maybe this will help, (it’s completely fine it doesn’t too. I’m not trying to hate on you just giving my opinion to the points you raised)

    1. Atlantians don’t hate surface dwellers because they are racist, they hate them because they pollute the sea by dumping all their wastes into sea.

    2. Point 1 is the reason why they hate AQUAMAN. Because he’s half breed and has lived in land so even he has helped people who pollute the sea.

    3. Atlantians have never lived outside of water. Of course they won’t be black. Exposure to sun plays an important role in tanning of skin. That and melanin.

    4. The reason why convincing King Nereus is important is because he has the biggest army and can fight of Atlantan men so he needs him the most in his side. Other 2 nations can be easily convinced and even if they aren’t, the rulers can be killed and if the army fight, they can be conquered.

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    1. Jay

      You cannot say ‘of course they won’t be black.’ You can’t pretend to offer scientific explanations for the racist casting of a film made in 2018 that pretends that people, who in fact once did live above water, but somehow instantaneously evolved in order to breathe under water when they accidentally sank their own city. Which, by the way, makes them the #1 polluters of the ocean. But like most white people, they colonized the sea once they get there, insisting on ruling it, and subjugating those who lived there first. Hm, sound familiar? And even though they were once immigrants to the sea, they are now intolerant to other people. They would happily build a wall if they could. And when you cast that film in a racist way, if you literally have an all-white army and the only black people are villains, your film takes on unintentional racist overtones. And if a film can ask me to pretend that people can live and breathe and speak underwater, that those same people can then survive a jump from an airplane with no parachute, that people can telepathically speak to animals and control the environment – well, I think it’s reasonable that we, the audience, can accept that a black man can live under the sea among them.

      James Wan cast this film in the cowardly way that kowtows to the white, male, comic book nerds – the same men who cry and complain if you make the Ghostbusters female, or make a storm trooper black. Wan played it safe, and as a POC himself, he should know better. We all should. And when we see it, we need to call it out.

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      1. Lavanya

        I guess it’s all about culture. I’m neither white or black, I’m an Indian so mixed colour is I guess what people call us. Anyway, personally I wasn’t offended by the movie and it’s representation problem but that can also be because I didn’t grow up in the states.

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  6. Liz A.

    During the summer there was a remake of the series In Search Of. They did an episode (I think it was two hours) on the lost civilization of Atlantis. And ever since seeing that, I’m kinda over the whole idea that there’s an Atlantis under the sea. (Spoiler: they found compelling evidence that the civilization was centered in modern day Morocco.)

    I heard awful things about this movie. I wasn’t interested before. If I want to see Jason Momoa, I’ll rewatch Stargate: Atlantis.

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