With Aquaman, James Wan gets to introduce superhero fans to a whole new world of fantasy and adventure — and it’s a world that’s right here on Earth. The first solo film for Jason Momoa‘s Atlantean hero first introduced in Zack Snyder‘s Justice League will travel to Atlantis and back in a globe-trotting superhero movie that puts a priority on heart and humor, and building a colorful world of wonders (including some signature James Wan’s creature creations.)
With Aquaman arriving in theaters later this year, I recently joined a small group of journalists at Warner Bros. studios, where we visited the edit bay with Wan, saw a few minutes of new footage, and spoke with the director about his vision for bringing the Wonders of Atlantis and one of the world’s goofier superheros to the screen.
As for the footage, here’s a quick rundown on what we saw. First off was the film’s prologue, a lovely little glimpse at the love story between Atlanna (Nicole Kidman) and Thomas Curry (Temuera Morrison), and how it sets the stage for the man Arthur will become. When a raging storm washes Atlanna onto the shores of Curry’s lighthouse, the good-natured man takes her in to care for her and gets a whole lot more than he bargains for. The Queen of at Atlantis is a bit peculiar at first, trying to eat Thomas’s fish, wary of warm tea, and of humans in general, but the two share a lovely chemistry and a good bit of humor, and ultimately a child, but when the Atlantean soldiers come knocking down their door, Atlanna has to make an impossible choice (and kick a whole lot of ass). Wielding her trident, the sea queen zips around the room to take out the soldiers — a sequence shot in an extended take (more on that below) to really show off what this fierce ruler can do. Cut to a few years later, and we see Aurthur as a child on a field trip to the aquarium, and what is he doing? Talking to the fish, naturally.
Next up, we got a peak at the ancient combat ritual between Arthur and Orm (Patrick Wilson), which we saw teased in the trailer. The contentious brothers battle it out for the throne under water — Arthur using his Atlanna’s trident and Orm using his father’s, which he boasts has never known defeat. I’m reluctant to break down this footage in too much detail because there are some pretty spoilery elements therein, but let’s just say Wan’s underwater world is full of color and creatures (and Amber Heard‘s Mera wears one seriously stunning Jellyfish dress), and his underwater action looks pretty similar to what we’ve seen in the DCEU before. Don’t expect air bubbles or slow movements — these are Atlanteans and they don’t move under water the way we do. They’re fast and ferocious, and while the world of water bends around them a bit, their hair flowing behind them, they move like superheroes. The best bit about this footage is the stakes it establishes in the dynamic between Arthur and Orm, who promises to bring the fury of the seven seas to the mainland and hates his brother for pretty understandable reasons. We also get a glimpse of the wise Vulko and get to see Mera use her powers to potent effect.
We also watched the footage revealed at comic-con, and you can read a full breakdown of that here if you missed it, as well as a few moments of banter and action with Arthur and Mera. Overall, this movie looks fun and fantastical — some drumming octopi might be my favorite thing I saw the whole day — infused with color and lots of Wan’s signature creativity. For more of what we learned, check out my breakdown of the key details below.
To shoot Nicole Kidman’s big opening action sequence, Wan used a Spidercam rig on the ceiling to capture the scene in one fluid, traveling shot. “the way we did it was we removed the ceiling of the set and we had the spider cam just on wires zip all over the set from one character to another character,” Wan explained. “So the character goes around beating up all the soldiers, and it was very technically challenging to try and get that all done.” The sequence took two days to shoot, but it was worth it for Wan to give the audience the best experience of the scene. “it’s always nice to let the detailed action moment play out in one shot,” he said, “and letting the audience sort of soak it all in, just examine the all the little details, all the nuances in the moment. And just as important, basically time just showing the lay of the land literally, like the geography of the land, and giving the audience an understanding of where they are as the actions play out.”
- For Wan, the love stories in the film are just as important, if not more, than the action — and not just the love story between Arthur and Mera, but between Atlanna and Thomas Curry (Temuera Morrison). “The love story between her and dad is the emotional backbone for the movie and how it informs Arthur’s character and his journey and his bitter outlook on the world of Atlantis,” Wan explained. The filmmaker cites Romancing the Stone as an influence on his wild fantasy adventure.”This movie, at the end of the day, is a very classic action adventure, like a romance, it’s a very classic romance adventure story. First and foremost, it’s that, I think more than it is a superhero story.”
Filming the underwater action sequences was one of the most challenging elements to crack for the filmmaker, including the decision to shoot everything “dry for wet,” meaning none of the stunts were actually shot under water. “It is very difficult trying to simulate the look of weightlessness you would get underwater,” Wan said. “We did tons of R&D very early on of how people would move underwater. We did props and sets and everything under water and then we would get tons of study just to see what things would look like. Ultimately what we realize is what we can do under water was do very much limited by what the people where doing.” The other element that was trick to get right was the matter of How Atlanteans move under water, which to say not at all like we wou’d “We are normal human beings we are not Atlantean and these guys obviously move very differently in a water space, “Wan explained. “For us, we swim slowly and stuff like that. So we had to apply a very different kind of thinking.” To nail the Atlantean way, the actors spent extensive time training on wires to get physically up to shape for the rigs.
- Aquaman is definitely not a horror movie, but the wonders of Atlantis allowed Wan to bring in some of his scary flair. “ I want to take what people think is from me, what is special about the world and bring it into this movie, and yet infiltrate through my own sensibility,”Wan said. “And so of course we’re going to see creatures in there that are scary. And that’s what I love about this movie. It really allows me to lean into how most people feel about the ocean, which is, it’s amazing, it’s wondrous and magical on the one hand, but on the other hand it’s scary and frightening. And it’s so unknown, it’s so undiscovered yet, right?”
Cracking his take on an updated incarnation of the classic Aquaman gold and green costume was a bit tricky because it’s hard not to make it look a little silly. “The key was to try and take that classic outfit and make sure it’s not goofy. Make sure its not cheesy. We associate so much of the cheese of the character so much,”Wan said. “We have the Super Friends cartoon that we’re familiar with and the look of it. But that’s also kind of what makes him really cool. And so the key was taking that idea and making sure that that aesthetic fits with the look of what Atlantis is today and what Atlantis was back then. And just trying to to do it justice but do it in a way that potentially wink at the classic old costume but kind of bringing a sort of modern sensibility to it.”
- But Wan didn’t want to turn his back on the character’s goofiness entirely — he knew he had to embrace it to make the film work, and Momoa’s personality was the perfect fit to pull that off. “I think it was important very early on when I met with Jason Momoa and just seeing how likable the guy actually is in person, how charismatic, and how funny and goofy he is,” Wan explained. “Right off the start I just wanted to bring a lot of his own personality into his character. I didn’t want to make a whole movie where he’s heavy and moody and stuff like that. That’s not the movie I wanted to make.” He continues, “I think, you know, I wanted to embrace what people think is goofy and potentially campy about this role, and really make it fun and adventurous, in a cool way.”
- Arthur and Mera’s journey take them through different kingdoms of Atlantis around the world, an idea that gave Wan room build a much bigger world of fantasy and adventure. “The coolest thing about that is I get to create this sort of fantastical world, not in another dimension,” Wan said. “It’s not in outer space, it’s right here on our planet. And that’s what’s so cool about it, is, you know, it’s not in Middle Earth. It’s here on our planet. And so, I get to kind of, you know, play into the design aspect of it that I really love.” But it’s not just world-building, it’s also about the character because Arthur’s journey helps teach him the right way to be a king. Wan continued, “The other thing that it allows me to do as well is it allows my lead hero to kind of see the different kingdoms, and he sees how different people kind of live, kind of have that inform what kind of king he should [become].”