Armchair Screenwriting: ‘Aquaman’

Posted: June 3, 2010 in Braak, comic books
Tags: , ,

Okay, I can do this.  Aquaman, huh?  Aquaman.  Doooobeeeedoooo.  Hm.  All right.

Aquaman is tricky, because here’s his power:  he can swim fast, and telepathically communicate with fish.  Also he is the secret king of Atlantis.

There’s two basic ways I figure you can go with this, and one of them I like more than the other.  The first way, the one I don’t like as much (and the one more likely to be touchstone for a script), is rooted in Aquaman’s origin story:  Aquaman adopted by a lighthouse keeper, discovers his Atlantean heritage, &c.

In fact, this was the basis for the Aquaman TV show that spun off of Smallville.  Or, that WOULD have spun off of Smallville if it had been even remotely interesting, but it wasn’t so it didn’t.  When I first read about this, I had a number of things to say, but I think the best part was this:

…if you look in the spoilers section, it mentions that in the show that water will fuel his powers–even exposure to a little water.  This is the kicker, here’s the words they use, “so that there can be some stories that take place on land.”

See that?  Those WB guys.  Always thinking.  In the TV show that they’re making, SOME OF THE STORIES WILL TAKE PLACE ON LAND.  Some.  Some of the stories.  That’s supposed to be a plus.  Like if I were sitting back, making a tally of all the things that were good about the show, and all the things that were bad, I’m going to see the fact that NOT EVERYTHING on the show happens UNDERWATER, and I’m going to check that off in the “Good” category.

I don’t know about you.  But I feel like having a show that doesn’t take place underwater, that maybe that should be the standard that we set for our TV shows.  That really the question, “How much of this show is going to take place underwater?” that question should never be asked.  We should safely be able to disregard pitches in which the writers NEED AN EXCUSE to have the episode NOT occur UNDERWATER.

Anyway, the problem with this approach is that it’s dumb.  It’s, first of all, exactly the same as all of the other heroes embracing their secret destiny stories; secondly, it puts both Aquaman and his friends in the same position relative to the Atlantis paradigms, which I think hampers the dynamic a little.

So, what do we do here?  The major hurdle that I see is this: no one takesAquaman seriously because, in the context of the Justice League, his powers are fairly useless.  They have a very specific, limited utility that essentially never comes up.  Naturally, then, the way to solve this problem is to shift the context.

An Aquaman movie shouldn’t take place on land at all — or, hardly on land.  It should take place at sea, with Somali pirates and exploding oil rigs and an underwater city (that is actually only one of SEVERAL underwater cities).  There’s an entire civilization in our world, right now, that the rest of us hardly even know about because it all happens on the ocean.  You end up with a neat, multi-layered effect here:  the protagonist (will get to in a minute) keeps stumbling through layers and layers of undiscovered worlds — pirates first, then Atlantis, then, oh, let’s say the Deep Ones.  This is a good thematic element, the idea that the depths of the unknown are essentially infinite, and for all that we think we know, we can always go deeper.  That’s why the protagonist should be a scientist.

I think the way to go, instead of having this be a movie about Aquaman learning about his true heritage or whatever, is to make it a movie in which Aquaman isn’t the protagonist.  He, in fact, doesn’t seem to be a hero first at all — he is the King of Atlantis, he’s got superpowers, he gets involved in things a little, but he’s not out to rescue anyone, or look out for truth or justice or the American Way.  (He probably hates the American Way.)

The protagonist of the story will be a woman oceanographer.  I don’t know what her name is, I don’t know if Aquaman even knows any surface people.  The point is that she’s the one that let’s us learn about what’s going on (our audience surrogate), and she’s the one that gives us an introduction to Aquaman, so that we can see him, right away, in all his Aqua-glory, just kicking the crap out of some guys.

So, maybe he rescues her from some pirates, and she goes down to Atlantis with him, and she tries to get him to get involved in stuff, but there’s Atlantean politics that are getting in the way.  Like, oh, maybe she and her crew are brought down, and they want to escape, and the other Atlanteans want to kill them, but Aquaman flips out at how bloodthirsty his own people are, and then his half brother tries to resurrect Cthulhu and destroy Atlantis.

Probably because Aquaman thinks the best way to get humans to stop trashing the ocean is to start giving them Atlantean science and to help them figure stuff out, while the rest of Atlantis are suspicious of his scientific ways and want to use ancient Atlantis magic to just wipe out the surface world.

The scientists would have to have some kind of important job, also.  Maybe late in the game, Aquaman helps them escape, and they rescue him in their submarine.

The whole thing has to be epic, like Thor but in the water.  Like, ah, I don’t know, Lawrence of Arabia meets The Abyss, maybe, mashed up with Waterworld.

Aquaman isn’t just a superhero, he’s also a political leader, and so the whole film has to be packed with the dense political and economic troubles of the ocean.  Astute readers will recognize this as being pretty similar to the way they handle Aquaman in Justice League Unlimited, and, well…yeah.  Duh.  How else are you going to do it?

  1. Moff says:

    I would ditch the woman oceanographer—just because I hate oceanographers; they know why—and keep Aquaman as the protagonist, open the story in his throne room in Atlantis, and just trump the whole story up into some overblown Shakespearean-style shit. I mean, instead of ever nodding to the fact that Aquaman has been such a laughable character for so long, play it not balls-to-the-wall serious, but balls-past-the-wall serious. A bunch of highfalutin language, intrigue, stabbings, and irreconcilable conflict stemming from his surface-dweller upbringing and the fact that an oil spill that makes the present one look like a dropped cup of coffee has just occurred. The Atlanteans are legitimately outraged, yet Arthur—having grown up on the surface, and understanding that surface politics are much more complicated than they are in Atlantis, which is relatively tiny—knows most humans aren’t responsible for the disaster.

  2. braak says:

    I don’t like that we’ve got no way into Atlantean society. It’s crazy, sure, and that’s great, but we have to both understand it AND find an excuse to explain it to someone. Not only that, but we’ve got to be able to put a face on the consequences of the Atantleans deciding to wipe out the surface-dwellers, I think.

  3. Moff says:

    If we go with Aquaman raised by a lighthouse keeper, though, can’t we use his preexisting relationships with the surface-dwellers? And if we present him as a fairly newly coronated sovereign, still trying to consolidate his power and trying to understand his new society, we can work a fair amount of exposition in.

    I really am imagining this shit in iambic pentameter. I realize the mainstream probably won’t be ready for it for another hundred years at least.

  4. braak says:

    I don’t know, man; the problem with Shakespeare is, every time someone has a concept or a design idea, it’s about re-presenting the original text in a way that will connect with the audience. I think what you’re talking about could work, but runs the very real risk of soaring off into classical structure and losing its immediate, topical grounding.

    It’s possible, obviously; you’d make it, in this case, like a mash-up between The Abyss and 300; though, I was saving the 300 model for my Hawkman movie.

  5. braak says:

    Also, I like the idea of introducing Aquaman as just super-badass, right at the beginning: the first time we see him, he’s in his element, he’s kicking the shit out of some guys, and any question as to whether or not this is going to be awesome is banished from the audience’s mind.

  6. Carl says:

    I like the idea of creating a highly detailed cultural and political world that has its own distinct, alien flavor and creating court intrigue there. I would think this business of placing aquatic heroes in stories that unfold primarily on the land has mostly to do with the logistics of filming and the practical storytelling problems that would arise from shooting under water. I’ve never read Aquaman (or any DC comic, for that matter), but I presume that Atlanteans are gilled and don’t breathe air– is this correct? If so, in very nuts-and-bolts practical terms, how do you shoot this movie and what are the conventions that govern this world? Every scene you shoot is submerged in a pool? And the actors all wear weighted shoes so they don’t float to the surface? Or are they tethered with a system they can control when they have to go up for a breath? Let’s hope we don’t drown anyone. They can’t hear each other when filming under water, which makes capturing believable dialogue difficult. Then, too, I guess we go back into the studio and overdub the entire film so that the audience can hear them as clearly as they hear each other? There are other incidental but noteworthy problems. There can be no crying underwater. Also, actors in action sequences can only move as quickly human body can underwater– which isn’t very quickly. We could speed up the film, you say. Perhaps, but wouldn’t all the bubbles created by that motion betray us and let the audience in on the trick?

  7. braak says:

    @Carl: I think the way that this would have to work is that the Atlanteans are actually amphibious, rather than purely under-water people, and their civilization reflects this. Atlantis is underwater, and many of the paths between its buildings and rooms are underwater, because the Atlanteans need constant access to water; but the rooms themselves are like deep-sea caves that have air bubbles in them.

  8. Carl says:

    Ah, I see. That would make things a bit more manageable. And for the record:

  9. braak says:

    Look what it says there: “Ben Grant, a first time scribe, is writing the screenplay.”


    How do you get a job like that? How does that happen, where you’re just some fucking guy and you go to some producers and say, “Hey, let me write your movie,” and they just let you do it?

  10. Moff says:

    @braak: I think there are usually internships involved, or excellent family connections. I bet if you spent a few minutes, you could probably find out how it works.

  11. braak says:

    Feh. I can’t even find him on the internet. Or, I can’t find the person that I think this guy is. But none of those things alleviate this system being a pain in my ass.

  12. Carl says:

    Well, aren’t you failing to mention all the sex Ben Grant had to have the producers between step 1 (I have a script) and step 3 (they’re making it into a movie), or is it just heresay that Grant is a total slut?

  13. Carl says:

    (*lawyer-types please note: the opinions expressed the prior slanderous statement belong solely to the individual poster who unaffiliated with Threat Quality Press, and in no way reflect the opinions or beliefs of its bloggers, webmaster, or management.)

  14. Moff says:

    Twenty minutes ago, Ben Grant saw this page pop up on a Google alert for his name and “Aquaman,” and thought, “Hey, maybe I should get this Braak kid involved with this thing.”

    Five minutes ago, he refreshed the page, and discarded the email he was in the middle of composing.

  15. braak says:

    Well, I assume that’s part of it, but seriously–if just sleeping around is all that’s required, I’m definitely qualified. I am EXTREMELY HANDSOME, as you both know.

    But it actually looks like Ben Grant hasn’t even written the screenplay, yet. Having a script, that’s a model that I get; you’ve got a script, you send it to agents until someone likes it, they send it to producers until someone likes it (or producer’s cousin’s personal trainer or whatever). What I get less is the process whereby you get tapped to write something despite never having written anything before.

    Though, there is a Ben Grant who’s in IMDB as a producer and, prior to that, production accountant, and if that’s how he became a screenwriter, then THAT makes total sense to me. It’s just not a feasible career path.

  16. braak says:

    Yeah, yeah, I know. I’m a terrible person that complains bitterly about shit, and that’s why I have no real career options.

  17. Moff says:

    Well, and also, let’s just say it, since everyone is thinking it: His name sounds British. And those people sort of run the entertainment industry.

  18. Moff says:

    Ha! That’s putting it a bit strongly. But I mean: I’M PRETTY SURE IT’S NOT BECAUSE YOU’RE NOT GOOD AT WRITING.

    Anyway, you can always be the 21st century’s answer to Harlan Ellison. I don’t think there is one yet, right?

  19. braak says:

    I’d much rather write The Flash, anyway.

    Hmmm. Maybe I have to move to Hollywood, and just start kicking guys?

  20. Moff says:

    Getting into an altercation with Frank Sinatra might help, too.

  21. Carl says:

    Accountant to producer to screenwriter? Casting no aspersions on the fine work done by many accounts, and allowing for the possibility that Ben Grant (aside from being a terrific lay) may be a fellow of manifold talents, among which could be a facility with dialogue and narrative construction– this is what’s wrong with Hollywood.

    Also, I presume Moff meant because I let the cat out of the bag about Grant’s being easy as opposed to your griping, but you can ask him. Also again– I agree with Moff that if anything’s wrong, it ain’t your writing, kid. Also again once more– I had to google Harlan Ellison and I still don’t know who he is.

  22. Carl says:

    Wait, Ben Grant sleeps around AND beat up the King of Croon? Scoundrel!

  23. braak says:

    No, Harlan Ellison got into a fight with Frank Sinatra, because Sinatra didn’t like his boots.

    Harlan Ellison is a famously ornery science fiction writer, primarily of the 60s and 70s (I’d guess that his most recognizable work was writing “The City on the Edge of Forever” episode of Star Trek, but he was actually quite prolific, generally). Back when the SciFi channel was good, he actually had his own segment that was just him BITCHING about stuff for twenty minutes.

  24. Moff says:

    Ellison’s short stories, by the way, are generally stronger than his novels. At least, he’s famous for a number of his short stories, while none of his novels are particularly well known. So probably start with those if you’re interested, Carl.

    (He also famously edited Dangerous Visions and Again, Dangerous Visions, generally—and justifiably, IMHO—regarded as two of the best collections of short science fiction ever published. Maybe even more famously, he never got around to published The Last Dangerous Visions, which was supposed to complete the set, even though I believe he has had much of the material in hand for about thirty years.)

  25. Jeff Holland says:

    Let’s move away from poor, misunderstood Ben Grant, or his (likely superpowerful) dad will blacklist this site when the internet goes commercial.

    In the meantime, let’s make fun of Harlan Ellison. I’ll bet Sinatra made fun of his boots because they had three-inch heals. Ha-HAAAA cuz he’s short.

    NO! Let’s talk about Aquaman.



    This may have been a cruel dare on my part, sorry, Braak. I’ll bet putting a Martian Manhunter treatment together might have actually been easier.

    Gonna have to give this a little more thought. Back in a bit.

  26. Jeff Holland says:

    OK! Your version is good. It Works. And part of it is making Aquaman the antagonist for the first third of the movie.

    Instead of pirates – which WOULD be awesome – he could take them apart like THAT – so let’s put a tack in that one for the moment. Perhaps the marine scientist (and yeah, we’re gonna need her as a viewpoint) is mixed up with the jokers who try to stop whaling expeditions. (We could even use camera tricks like it’s a Discovery-Channel series but what the HELL, who is THAT BLONDE DUDE, RIDING A WHALE?!)

    And the first time she sees Aquaman is when he brings the full force of the seas – “Oh, that? That’s the giant squid who FOLLOWS MY EVERY COMMAND!” (not something Aquaman would say – in fact, he’d be a pretty taciturn guy, letting his actions speak for him, before delivering a Kingly Proclamation to STAY THE HELL OUT OF HIS OCEAN) – to bear on both ships.

    Then, it’s her job to try to show the King of the Seven Seas that not all land-lovers are like this. Except his half-brother Orm (the Ocean Master) has made back-room dealings with these assholes (maybe utilizing a guy like Black Manta as an intermediary), to motivate Atlantis to ignore their king and follow his war-like lead, so now we have a justifiable conflict for Aquaman: follow his people’s urges (which are not unfounded) or do what HE thinks is right.

    Of course, not being a total nut-job, he’s going to side with the scientist, and even though he wins out at the end, it will lead to his being dethroned and cast out by his people, leading to a kind of ronin-version of Aquaman that could be used in future movies.

    Question: How does one effectively do undersea action? Aquaman erupting from the ocean and kicking the shit out of everyone on a boat is one thing – that would certainly be an opening action-sequence highlight – but once the plot takes us down to the undersea kingdom…how do you make that look acceptable on-screen?

  27. braak says:

    I think I had an idea for her to be part of a more serious, sciencey-organisation (or, potentially, one actually sponsored by oil cartels), just because I don’t want to get into a too-pat “good guys = ecology, bad guys = industry”. Like, you know, there are good people in the oil industry, and I’d rather there’s a way to make the industry look bad, while recognizing that the personal motivations of its employees are sometimes more complicated than that.

    But I think I had some idea that she and her cohorts would be collecting data when their ship is attacked by pirates and, in order to protect it (because maybe she immediately recognizes that the pirates aren’t “real” pirates, but industrial espionage pirates), she puts it into a box and throws it into the water.

    They escape, but then have to go back for their data, only to discover that the Atlanteans have already recovered it. The Atlanteans take is as a sign that the surface dwellers are planning an invasion, the scientist proves to Aquaman that it’s actually some kind of plan about….er…renewable energy, something, I don’t know. But, while I feel strongly about the need for a viewpoint character, I strongly object to viewpoint characters that do not provide a specific skill-set whose use is pertinent to the plot.

    Anyway, re: undersea action. Good question! I assume CG stuff. In Smallville, when Aquaman was underwater, he was swimming super-fast, like a torpedo. If you figure that Atlanteans have similar powers, then you could do some of these action sequences like Supermen Battles, but surrounded by glow in the dark fish and luminescent Hellenic temples. Probably, there should also be a point in which a submarine fires a torpedo, and Aquaman grabs it and turns it around to hit the submarine.

  28. V.I.P. Referee says:

    …it would be cool to have a creepy–but wise–confidante of Aquaman, hanging-out near hydrothermal vents. Like, he gets a high off chemosynthesis, man. And he has a whole crew of deep-sea weirdos as lackeys (lackies?). This concept would sit-well with the goth crowd.

    Also, couldn’t the Atlantians have some plan to speed-up polar cap melt, so they have access to more water? (And humans thought our pumping mass amounts of toxic pullution into the atmosphere was the only cause…it’s those sea people and their sea monkey side-kicks that are part of the problem…)

    Also, for quality underwater action sequences, refer to the old standby “Clash of the Titans”. The one from the 80’s. The one with The Kraken.

    Also, Ben Grant is a mad sexy, British rentboy who once choreographed a “Cirque de Soilel” show? I’m a fan already, and I’ve never even heard of him until today.

    I think effectively breaking into Hollywood requires the combined utilization of thongs, cocaine and sandwichboards. Or, you could pump-out tons of short scripts–maybe one-act things–and create your own independent art shows, displaying independent shorts and post videos of the work on your own site.

  29. Jeff Holland says:

    @VIP: I have clearly been using the wrong combination of thongs, cocaine and sandwichboards.

    Also, I believe melting the icecaps was at least one part of Aquaman’s evil half-brother’s master plan on the Justice League two-parter. Which once again proves, there is NOTHING WE CAN THINK OF that Bruce Timm and Company didn’t already spend maybe weeks hammering out first.

    (In fact, I had to toss out my first counter-suggestion to Braak’s pitch, when I realized what I was thinking of was actually a mash-up of the Aquaman episodes of Superman and Justice League.)

    That’s the thing – for all our discussions and acting like we’re the only ones who Get It, that’s not true. The writing and producing staff of the Justice League/JLU series did EXACTLY what we’ve been doing, and it shows in those shows.

    So that makes it all the more frustrating, that pretty damn near perfect renditions of these characters have ALREADY been concocted, but will go ignored by the movie producers all in the name of finding a “new angle” on a character.

  30. […] “superhero” movie that needs to not have the superhero be the protagonist (see:  Aquaman).  And we also kind of need to scale the Martian Manhunter back a little bit, too, because his […]

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