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The Kings Arthur: Aquaman and the Myth of the Hero-King

Kim Wickham • Horry-Georgetown Technical College

Calling upon shared myths, particularly ones that are so tightly woven into societal narratives that they begin to seem natural, can act as a convenient shorthand for authors and directors to evoke specific concepts without having to explicitly spell out their intentions. Because of this nearly subconscious process, it is also easy to forget or overlook the less obvious implications of these narratives. 2018’s Aquaman (James, Wan) does exactly this, with perhaps unintentional results. Drawing heavily on the legend of King Arthur, along with the more general myth of the hero’s journey and the pop-cultural position of superheroes, Aquaman seeks to present Arthur Curry as a rightful king, worthy of the throne and deserving of the position of ruler. But in utilizing these popular narratives without interrogating them, the movie advocates for a rather troubling view of masculinity, power, and sovereignty that more faithfully present an outdated view of who the superhero is.

The DC Extended Universe’s (DCEU) Aquaman was a surprising hit for a franchise that has consistently lagged behind its competitor, Marvel. Based on the story of a man who can breathe underwater and talk to fish, Aquaman serves as a kind of origin story where Arthur Curry embraces his Atlantean roots and becomes their king. Aquaman was not a critical success—most reviews found it bloated—but it is, to date, DC’s most successful comic book movie adaptation, grossing just over $1.148 billion worldwide. And while it is an action-packed, visually overloaded, adventure fantasy, it also focuses on an incredibly violent, patriarchal system that, instead of being challenged, is explicitly upheld. The fact that it calls upon many of the same tropes found in Arthurian legend and draws on them as a way to justify or gloss over its own negative representations of power warrants investigation. Given the right-wing extremist and fascist appropriation of Viking and Medieval culture, it is even more pressing that the ways in which these cultural myths are deployed be interrogated. Returning to the myth of the hero king, and more specifically to the story of King Arthur, taps into our cultural desire to place our faith in a strong, capable, (white) male leader who has been ordained by some higher power to rule over the rest of us. This encourages viewers to accept, unquestioningly, Curry’s actions based on his connection to King Arthur and all the assumptions that entails. And while the casting of Jason Momoa, a native Hawaiian, to play Arthur Curry does suggest a variation on our conception of who gets to lead, it is not enough to counteract the strong foundation of problematic messages the film espouses in regard to leadership, power, and access. Ultimately, Aquaman uses the legend of King Arthur of Camelot to take advantage of certain ingrained ideas about rightful rule and “good” kings. But in participating in this mythos, Aquaman also exposes the troubling assumptions that can accompany, and be reinforced by, seemingly innocuous pop culture remixes of folk narratives packaged in the masculine image of the superhero.

Superheroes, Masculinity, and Violence

That superheroes can embody problematic masculinities and relations to power and violence is not a new idea. Nearly from their inception, superheroes have come under intense scrutiny for their visions of heroes, nations, morality, gender, etc. 1 Robert Jewett and John Shelton Lawrence write that

The superhero of the American monomyth does not free us from violence, but perpetuates it even as he claims to be a force for ‘peace’ in his own use of rationalized violence. Films that rehearse this myth have reworked traditional religious ideas of the hero according to a new mythic pattern, one that echoes the ideology of American exceptionalism and the idea that we have a mission to create peace through a heroic ‘just war’ on behalf of ‘freedom’ against the forces of evil in the world. 2

Thus, violence becomes not just acceptable, but often necessary and good. In the introduction to The Superhero Reader, the authors write that the idea that superhero stories are an “adolescent male power fantasy,” or that superhero narratives are “of necessity formulaic, masculinist, melodramatic, and morally reductive,” is common in both mainstream thought and critical examinations of the genre. 3 This is demonstrated in a 2018 article for The Guardian where a mother laments that her son had entered a seemingly never-ending superhero phase because, as she writes, these superheroes are bad role models:

The superhero is the unexceptional man made exceptional by tragedy – Batman, Iron Man, Hulk, Magneto – and/or by the application of powers: Batman, Iron Man and Hulk again, plus Captain America and the X-Men. But he is usually narcissistic (Iron Man, who describes himself as “a genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist” […]). He is often depressive (Batman, Hulk, Magneto) or frozen in ice (Captain America, though it’s not really his fault). He cannot form stable relationships with women (this applies to all of them). Anti-intellectualism is essential; none of the superheroes seems to read books, except Professor X of X-Men. They exist to punch people. 4

A cursory glance through superhero history would seem to uphold this negative reading.

Anthony R. Mills traces many of these features of superheroes to the philosophical and theological origins of the American monomyth. He writes that the monomythic hero is “thoroughly individualistic.” 5 In Golden Age comics, in order to maintain this independence, the hero had to shun sexual relationships, family, and any sense of communal life (thus explaining why so many superheroes are orphans). 6 This refusal of sexuality or relationships with women was accompanied by “rank misogyny,” in which romantic relationships were often seen as traps. 7 This is bolstered by the overwhelmingly subordinate, oversexualized, and negative portrayal of women in comics of that time (and often now).

Superheroes in the monomythic tradition also tend to solve things primarily with violence. This is, for Mills, somewhat ironically one of the main ways that heroes maintain not only a clear distinction between good and evil, but also how they establish heroic purity. Mills argues that, for American readers, there can be “no ambiguity regarding their villains’ wickedness. The perception of innocence is thus maintained only by the complete destruction of the enemy.” 8 He goes on to write that “Our villains must be morally evil so that we may be morally pure and our violence justified.” 9 But, as culture evolves, so too do conceptions of the hero, an evolution which Mills sees embodied most fully by Stan Lee and the Silver Age of comics.

One of Stan Lee’s most important contributions to comics is, according to Mills, his desire to present superheroes through a more realistic lens. Lee’s heroes were imperfect and, as imperfect people, also related to each other imperfectly. This means that Marvel team-ups tended to be more like real families. 10 Mills writes that “Marvel heroes have a commitment to the communities and contexts in which they live, as opposed to the older monomythic formula in which heroes leave town at the end of the story”—heroes were “residents instead of visitors.” 11 This complexity also often transferred over to villains, who were given more fleshed-out, complicated personalities and backstories, and were no longer represented as entirely evil. 12 The one place Silver Age comics still lacked was in its representation of women and minorities.

This evolution echoes the argument put forth by Kevin Lee Chiat in his dissertation, Being a Superhero is Amazing, Everyone Should Try It: Relationality and Masculinity in Superhero Narratives, in which he argues that while superhero comics do indeed present violent, masculinist heroes, their presentation is often more complex than early dismissals and critiques of the genre allow. Chiat writes that “the development of the genre has increasingly moved in the direction of modelling positive visions of masculinity and relational thinking.” 13 He sees the superhero genre as a place where ideas of individualistic exceptionalism and hegemonic masculinity are in constant renegotiation.

If, as Chiat and (to a lesser extent) Mills both argue, superheroes are a site for a renegotiation of violent, patriarchal and masculinist tendencies, with the trend seemingly to run towards a challenging of the individualist, often racist, misogynist, violent monomythic superhero of the past, why does Aquaman seem to rely so heavily on these outdated, and largely problematic, notions of superheroism? What makes Aquaman interesting is that its missteps are so clearly traceable to its re-presentation of a different national myth—that of King Arthur of Camelot. While Captain America and Superman bear the brunt of criticisms of a nationalistic and sometimes fascist defense of “American” ideals, Aquaman draws from Britain’s King Arthur. In doing so Aquaman “cashes in” on our cultural understanding of Arthurian chivalry and the rule of the good king, often eliding the patriarchal violence necessary to enforce this rule.

King Arthur Redux: Reimagining the Legend from Past to Present

The legend of King Arthur is one of the most enduring tales in the Western world. It has been adapted multiple times in every medium and finds its way into social narratives with ease. Arthur is, as Carl Sell 45 notes, a “globe-spanning king.” 14 One need only think of Camelot, the idyllic term often used to refer to the Kennedy administration, and how seamlessly it brought King Arthur into the 20th century imaginary. In fact, while King Arthur is understandably popular in Britain, as Alan Lupack and Barbara Tepa Lupack argue, Arthurian legend might actually be more popular in America. 15 And that popularity does not seem to be on the decline. Adaptations of the legend are still popular. 2017 gave us a big budget movie, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, directed by Guy Ritchie and starring Charlie Hunnam. The Kid Who Would Be King, a film aimed at children, came out in 2019, and 2021 saw the release of The Green Knight with Dev Patel. Even Mystery, Inc. repurposed the Arthur legend in 2021’s Scooby-Doo! The Sword and the Scoob. Marvel Comics has Arthur lead the team of medieval Avengers. Arthur continues to appear on television, in films and video games, in literature, in music, and even in anime. Mentions of Merlin, Excalibur, Camelot, Lancelot and Guinevere, the Holy Grail, and other such Arthuriana are even more numerous, making Arthur “an extra-ordinarily persistent presence.” 16 As N.J. Higham observes, what allows these disparate mediums to use the Arthur mythos through time is the legend’s own fuzzy historicity. Because it is so difficult to pin down the historical Arthur, or to even reach an agreement that he historically existed, subsequent authors can reimagine the specifics of his story to fit within the framework of a number of differing approaches and goals. In this way, the tropes and iconography of Arthur are adapted easily to various settings and purposes, but remain both recognizable and understood.

The legend of King Arthur pairs exceptionally well with the concept of superheroes. In discussing superheroes, Marvel Comics’ Joe Quesada, who served as chief creative officer from 2010 to 2019, says that “These stories we tell are very much akin to stories of ancient gods and the stories of the Great Hunt, or cave painting, stories of great heroes. We need them now more than ever as they are representational of us and our hopes and dreams.” 17 Like mythic heroes, superheroes rise above mundane concerns and deliver messages of justice. 18 The ways this dovetails with King Arthur, defender of the homeland, chivalric and honorable Knight of the Round Table, is clear. By linking Aquaman to King Arthur, while simultaneously giving him superpowers, Aquaman capitalizes on the tendency to view Arthur as a mythic hero-king, who achieved greatness and excellence of rule, 19 and our inherent reverence for superheroes. 20 This ultimately encourages viewers to accept that Curry is not only the rightful king, but will also be a good king. But even superheroes have their flaws: despite how clever or diverse they may be, disputes tend to ultimately be settled by who can punch the hardest; their relative or perceived superiority over others can lead to issues of oversight; and they can distract from systemic issues by focusing attention on splashy confrontations with a single easily identifiable “bad guy.” And these characteristic pitfalls make a superhero based on King Arthur all the more susceptible to a problematic reimagining of the legend. Aquaman combines our love for the legend of King Arthur with the flashy, violent, over-the-top genre of superhero movies, and in so doing reproduces (and exacerbates) the problematic aspects of how the Arthur mythos has been used throughout the centuries.

Aquaman as King Arthur

The legend of King Arthur integrates surprisingly well with the story of Aquaman as told in the movie. One of the most obvious ways is, of course, through naming. After Curry is born, his father, Tom, and mother, Atlanna, discuss names. During a news report of the impending Hurricane Arthur, they have the following conversation:

Tom: How about Arthur? Atlanna: After the hurricane? Tom: After a legend. He’s a king isn’t he?

Even as an infant, Arthur Curry’s legacy as not only a king, but a “King Arthur,” is established (and explicitly linked to a violent, destructive, and powerful natural phenomenon). There are also clear commonalities between Camelot and Atlantis, the future kingdoms of the Kings Arthur. Atlantis itself reminds one of Camelot—a mythical kingdom lost to time that many still insist is historical fact. There is also a similar cast of characters. King Arthur has Merlin and Curry has Mera, and each provides supernatural aid. Mera, like Merlin, gives Curry advice and tutelage, and on his quest for the Trident she uses her unique, though unexplained, powers to aid him. 21 Mera will also doubles as Arthur’s love interest. Additionally, Curry must contend with Black Manta, who works as a stand-in for a Black Knight—a figure that is seen throughout medieval literature and Arthuriana in particular. The many Arthurian references sprinkled throughout Aquaman may seem superficial, but the shorthand of Arthurian mythos is present consistently throughout the film and is impossible to ignore. Indeed, it is through recreating one of the most memorable parts of the King Arthur legend that the rightful rule narrative is deeply embedded into the film’s narrative.

The most important way Aquaman recalls King Arthur (of Camelot) is Curry’s quest to prove his right to rule by pulling the sword from the stone—in Curry’s case, a trident. The image of a would-be-king pulling a phallic weapon from a stone or stone-like structure, one preferably illuminated in a beam of other-worldly light, acts as a kind of synecdoche in the Western imagination. It immediately brings to mind concepts of kingship and demonstrations of rightful rule because it is so closely associated with King Arthur of Camelot. According to Robert de Boron’s Merlin, the first text to explicitly mention the sword in the stone, 22 after Uter Pendragon’s death, the land was thrown into chaos and the church, desiring a king who would rule to the “profite of the peple” 23 asked Merlyn for his counsel. He tells them at the Yuletide feast the Lord will “chese yow soche a man to be youre kynge and lorde.” 24 Upon exiting the church after mass,

thei sawgh it gan dawe and clere, and saugh before the cherche dore a grete ston foure square, and ne knewe of what ston it was — but some seide it was marble. And above, in the myddill place of this ston, ther stode a styth of iren that was largely half a fote of height. And thourgh this stithi was a swerde ficchid into the ston. 25

And upon the sword in gold letters was written: “Who taketh this swerde out of this ston sholde be kynge by the eleccion of Jhesu Criste.” 26 Of course, the young boy who would eventually pull the sword from the stone was Arthur, then a squire, but secretly the hidden son of Uter himself. Arthur becomes the good and rightful King that he always was, ordained by God. Thomas Mallory’s rendition in Le Morte d’Arthur does not substantially differ on the main points, nor does T.H. White’s The Once and Future King, or even Disney’s The Sword in the Stone cartoon movie.

Curry’s removal of a symbolic weapon that ordains him king shares a number of core aspects with Arthur of Camelot pulling the sword from the stone and ascending the throne. Both Curry and Arthur are “rightful” kings—they each have royal blood—who have been raised by non-royal families. 27 The weapon they are to retrieve is a symbol of kingship. For Curry, the “sword in the stone” is the trident that was forged from Poseidon’s steel for the first ruler of Atlantis, King Atlan, who, with its power, could command the sea. The hologram of King Atlan tells Curry and Mera that “in the hands of the true heir, it would unite all our kingdoms.” The similarities between Arthur’s sword and the Trident of the original King of Atlantis are multiple. First, possessing each of these weapons supposedly represents that some higher power has granted the holder the right to be king. Second, only the worthy can pull the sword/trident from the stone. In taking the trident from the image of Atlantis’ first patriarch, Curry definitively obtains an emblem of his right to rule. Finally, like the sword in the stone, possessing the Trident of Atlan visually marks Curry as King of Atlantis to his subjects. During the final battle, when Curry appears with the trident, a Xebel soldier tells King Nereus that “The half-breed wields King Atlan’s trident. He commands the sea” 28 to which Nereus replies “Then that half-breed is your king.” The trident itself becomes synonymous with Curry’s right to rule.

The Sword is not Enough: Gladiatorial Combat and Kingship

Superheroes need villains, and typically these movies end with a mano-a-mano winner-take-all fight. So while Arthur of Camelot ascends the throne without resistance, needing only to demonstrate his goodness and worth by pulling the sword from the stone, our almost-king Arthur of Atlantis must contend with Atlantis’ current king and the movie’s central villain, his brother Orm. In this way, Aquaman heightens the violence necessary to ascend the throne and emphasizes the importance of the anointed weapon. Where Arthur of Camelot only had to pull the sword from the stone to prove his worthiness, Arthur of Atlantis must participate in a battle of violent masculine prowess and power typical of superhero films, demonstrating that his phallic weapon is, in fact, a king’s weapon. Focusing on the conferral of power provided by a singular weapon emphasizes and heightens the connection between violence, rule, and masculine dominance.

By pulling the sword from the stone, Arthur of Camelot becomes the rightful king. All that is necessary is that his worthiness be marked by possessing the sword; he is not required to actually wield it. While both the sword and the trident are phallic representations of power, Aquaman emphasizes the phallic aspect in a way that Arthurian legend does not. Near the beginning of the film, before Curry has attained the trident of King Atlan, he challenges Orm. Curry fights with their shared mother’s trident while Orm fights with his father’s, a clear symbol of patriarchal authority. Orm tells Curry, “You have our mother’s trident. Powerful, but flawed like her. I wield my father’s. And it has never known defeat.” Immediately following this, Orm breaks Curry’s trident and declares, “I am the one true king!” The patriarchal implications are clear—Curry’s trident is feminized, having belonged to the mother, and therefore does not grant him the right to rule. For that, he must attain the weapon of the ur-patriarch, setting up Curry’s quest for King Atlan’s trident and eventual rematch for the throne.

By taking Atlan’s trident and becoming Ocean Master, Curry is officially recognized by the father and founding patriarch of Atlantis as his rightful heir. This is reinforced through the imagery where Curry takes the Trident, not from a stone, but from King Atlan himself, who holds the Trident in his hands, and then dons Atlan’s regalia. But he still must fully demonstrate his inheritance by defeating Orm, as “By bloodshed do the gods make known their will.”

For his second showdown with Orm, Curry fights with the patriarch’s trident rather than his mother’s and is victorious. Where Orm broke Curry’s previous (feminine) trident in half, the trident of the ur-patriarch shatters Orm’s, demonstrating that Curry’s new trident is dominant even over other symbols of hereditary masculine power. The implications are again clear—Orm’s trident does not have the strength or hardness to resist the Trident of King Atlan, wielded by the One True King. Now Curry not only has the blessing of the ur-patriarch as the holder of the strongest phallus, he has also obtained the blessing of the gods and proved his masculine prowess through violent combat.

By so clearly linking Curry’s rise to the throne with Arthur’s anointed kingship in the plot, character development, and imagery of the film, Curry’s position seems not only inevitable but also desirable. The desirability of his rule is particularly necessary in the case of Aquaman. Orm seems, by most measures, a fairly popular king—even his more “villainous” ambitions, namely the war with the surface, are arguably given justifiable motivations. He also gives Curry the chance to return home unharmed if he relinquishes any claim to the throne. But while Curry himself proclaims he does not have the qualities necessary to be king, the viewers know this is not true—not necessarily because of anything Curry has yet done, but because we recognize the tropes, narrative structure, and visuals that mark Curry as our hero-king, deserving of the throne, and Orm as therefore undeserving. Through Curry’s performances in the Ring of Fire—the ritualistic duel (seemingly to the death) that Curry and Orm fought in which Curry’s trident was initially broken and our would-be-king defeated—his choices of weaponry, and the conferrals of power via inheritance and combat, Aquaman establishes an exclusively patriarchal and violent set of criteria for who has the right to rule Atlantis: the candidate who has been ordained by the ur-patriarch, fights with the strongest phallus, and is victorious in armed combat.

Aquaman, Violence, and Empire: King Arthur and War

Aquaman’s reliance on violence does not end with Curry’s ascension to the throne. That Atlantis is a hereditary monarchy and seems to have no desire to challenge this tradition is, as the basis for a number of misogynist and violent acts, problematic on its own, but Aquaman also reimagines an aspect of the King Arthur legend that is equally as troubling: the quest for empire. Despite the relatively peaceful way in which traditional versions of Arthur frame his ascendancy to the throne, the King Arthur legend is intimately tied to violence and, throughout the centuries, has become a convenient and malleable symbol of empire. Arthur was often used in times of colonial expansion as a way to unite the people of Britain through an invasion narrative that casts “heroic island inhabitants and all that they stand for” under threat from the outside. 29 In this way, Arthur is used to preserve the status quo, through whatever (violent) means necessary—the invading force is repelled, and the kingdom is protected. By evoking the image of Arthur defending his realm, the assumption is that the cause is just and the outcome is not only desirable, but righteous.

That Aquaman is about empire is blatantly evident. King Orm wishes to become King of the Seven Seas by uniting the seven kingdoms under Atlantis’ rule. He does this because he feels that they are, in a sense, being invaded by the humans who live on land through pollution, over fishing, and a general degradation of the oceans. In order to reestablish control of the ocean and evict anyone who he feels does not belong, King Orm attempts to bring all the undersea kingdoms under his control. He faces mixed resistance. Some kingdoms, like Xebel, ruled by King Nereus, welcome Orm’s decisive action. Others, like the Kingdom of the Fishermen, do not want war. It is this conflict that Arthur Curry is meant to prevent by taking the crown from his half-brother. In order to challenge Orm for a second time, now with Atlan’s trident, Curry engages in what can only be called a massacre. While Curry is claiming the trident in the Hidden Sea, a war is waging in the ocean between Orm’s army and the army of the Brine, a crab-like race that refuses to join him. Curry, now controlling the sea creature the Karathen, breaks through the ocean floor, releasing magma and destruction. Countless Brine, who were standing on the ocean floor, are doubtlessly killed. While the Karathen, as well as the Trench (who Curry now also commands), attack Orm’s army, it is important to remember that part of this force is made up of the Fishermen, a people who did not want to join Orm and did so only under duress. Atlanteans, the people Curry is supposed to rule over as their benevolent king, are killed indiscriminately as well. Orm’s response to a kind of colonization of the ocean by the surface was to mount a full-scale invasion, inevitably killing millions of people, and establishing Atlantean dominance. But Curry’s attempt to stop him also relies on mass violence.

This clearly recalls the double-edged nature of empire as demonstrated by Howard Brenton’s The Romans in Britain: “once you introduce military conquest, all the worst is released on all sides. Empire itself, in all its forms, magnifies and multiplies humankind’s inherent violence.” 30 Hume summarizes the dilemma examined in Brenton’s work as follows:

if you fight against unjust conquest, you become as violent as the conquerors … No admirable romantic heroic Arthurian resistance is possible. Whether Arthur is conquering Europe or conquering his internal island empire or resisting Saxons, he cannot really have been ideal and glorious. He has enjoyed sixteen hundred years of off-and-on near worship, but the whole idea of such a figure is fraudulent. 31

Thus, there is no way to have a leader who is untouched by the violence he unleashes on others, whether we view his actions as justified or not. Indeed, this sequence in Aquaman violently demonstrates this dilemma—Curry is ostensibly the hero that is meant to save his people from Orm, and yet to do this, he uses the Trench and the Karathen to obliterate Orm’s forces and the Brine, the same people he is set to lead. Indeed, Curry himself is not the one to recognize that this destruction must end; it is Mera who comes to him and says “There are too many casualties. We have to stop the fighting now.” Before Mera’s intervention, Curry seems not just willing but eager to continue the fight and, in doing so, to mow down his future subjects, a great number of which have been forced into this battle. The impulse to view Curry as justified relies in large part on our belief that he is the rightful king, and once king, he will be a good and righteous king. Thus we are willing to overlook, or even celebrate, his violent display of power.

Atlantis and Camelot: Hereditary Monarchies

The disturbing ramifications of fusing the King Arthur legend with Aquaman do not end at empire and conquest. Atlantis, like Camelot, is a hereditary monarchy, and the majority of the film revolves around a transfer of monarchical power. While not surprising for Camelot, as England is historically a monarchy, it is somewhat surprising that Aquaman stresses bloodline as equal to, or often more pivotal than, merit, an unusual take for American reimaginings of the Arthur legend. 32 In fact, American versions tend to completely reject this aspect of the legend, as it is incompatible with American ideals of meritocracy and the rejection of monarchical rule. Instead, American invocations of Arthur usually foreground charity, moral integrity, or other worthy traits as more important than “nobility of birth, inherited wealth, or physical prowess,” 33 opening up knighthood to any person able to demonstrate these characteristics. 34 Even the 2019 children’s movie The Kid Who Would Be King, which is set in the UK, explicitly brings up the concept of noble blood only to fully reject it when Merlin says “The sword [Excalibur] doesn’t care who your parents are. It doesn’t choose by birth or blood, Alexander, but by heart or mind. If your legends say different, then perhaps you must write them anew.” Rather than writing this legend anew, and in line with modern adaptations, Aquaman reverses this trend, relying not only on lineage, but also on a society divided by caste tied to bloodline.

While King Arthur demonstrates his worthiness by pulling the sword from the stone, he was always a king. This is because he was the son of King Uter, sent into hiding to protect him from enemies. So Arthur is what John Clute and John Grant term a hidden monarch—in fact, they identify King Arthur as the most famous hidden monarch (HM). According to Clute and Grant, “the HM is a youngster who does not know his (less frequently her) identity or destiny,” but once they are recognized, their ascension to the throne promises a healing of the land. 35 The sword in the stone only solidifies and makes visible Arthur’s inherent kingship and confirms his bloodline. The importance of Arthur’s bloodline is further emphasized by subsequent historical appropriations of his story: the Tudors and the Stuarts would both claim Arthur as a royal ancestor to shore up their claims to the throne.

Aquaman also reproduces the idea that rule is tied to bloodlines, emphasizing that kingship is tied first and foremost to genetics. Curry’s initial claim to the throne is seen as valid because he is Queen Atlanna’s first born. There is never any questioning of the idea that the royal family should rule, but rather which royal son should sit on the throne. The issue, then, is not that Atlantis is ruled by a king, but simply that it is not ruled by the right king. And while Curry must prove himself before acquiring the trident, the way he does this is through his ability to talk to the Karathen, an ability inherited from his long dead ancestor, King Atlan. During their initial battle, he answers the Karathen’s charges that he is not worthy:

Karathen: You understand me? Curry: I do. Karathen: No mortal has conversed with me since King Atlan.

Curry’s ability to communicate directly with ocean creatures is never explained, but is not an ability shared by other Atlanteans. However, given that King Atlan was also able to converse with the Karathen, it is clear that this ability is not one he earned or developed through character or good deeds, but instead one he was born with. Of course, like King Arthur, we are meant to believe that he would not have been able to free the trident from the grip of King Atlan were he not worthy, but his worthiness and his birthright are inextricably intertwined.

The reliance on hereditary class divisions and inherited traits does not end with Curry. Atlantis itself is a hierarchical society divided into different castes that are seemingly based on genetics. As Mera tells Curry, “Only the Highborns can breathe water as well as air,” establishing a clear division between those born into the noble class and those not, complete with accompanying physical attributes. Even the name “Highborns” is reminiscent of nobility (if they are Highborn that seemingly makes everyone else “lowborn”). Their stratification implies that there is no “mixing” between the classes in Atlantis because these abilities require a troubling “purity” to possess. Not only is there a division within Atlantis, but between Atlanteans and others. Purity of blood is the basis of the slurs hurled against Curry, who is called “half-breed” throughout the film—half-breed being a derogatory term for someone with “mixed blood,” in this case Atlantean and land-dweller. Curry is also visually Othered, as all other Atlantean main characters are white, but this potential challenge is never fully explored. And while Curry is meant to bring these worlds together, the class divisions within Atlantis are never examined. Thus, Aquaman presents a society based on hereditary class and ruled by a monarchy, just like that of King Arthur’s Camelot many hundreds of years ago. That the film does nothing to interrogate this societal structure, particularly when many adaptations of Arthurian legend have worked to remove the concept of bloodlines and purity from the mythos, is both telling and troubling in its messages about power, justice, and leadership.

Atlantean Women: Patriarchy and Hereditary Monarchies

The centering of Arthur’s ascent to the throne couched in the journey of a hero-king also has repercussions for the women who surround him. Of course, Arthurian women have always been an important part of the legend and have seen their own various reimaginings as their place within the story is reevaluated and recast. As Thelma S. Fenster writes, “When situated against the history of actual women, female characters remain the locus of manifold tensions, the record of ambivalence about women’s real position in the medieval court life.” 36 Indeed, later reimaginings of Arthurian women would reflect the social views of women during the time of their rewriting. Thus, for example, views of Arthurian women during Victorian times focused on sexuality, splitting women into an Eve or a Mary, 37 and T.H. White’s Guenevere reflects “negative qualities [that] are much in tune with a type of twentieth-century antifeminism.” 38 Like Arthur, the women in the legend are also malleable figures that can be used to represent the values and views of whatever time period seeks to reimagine them. While at first glance the two women who are featured in Aquaman appear to be strong, independent characters, they are forced to live within the paradigm created by the film and driven by Curry’s hero-quest within a patrilineal monarchy. What this ultimately results in is a subjugation and exploitation of women that is brushed easily aside in a film oriented toward masculinity, power, and violence.

Aquaman has only two female characters—Queen Atlanna, Curry’s mother, and Mera, Curry’s magical guide and eventual romantic conquest. Each of their stories reveals something very troubling about how the world of Aquaman considers women. Atlanna’s backstory reveals the ways in which, as a patriarchal monarchy, women become possessions and suffer under this system. At the beginning of the film, Atlanna is fleeing an arranged marriage. She meets Curry’s father after washing ashore during a storm, they fall in love, and she gives birth to Arthur. However, she is eventually discovered, and Atlantean soldiers come to take her back. While she is able to fight them off the first time, she knows they will continue to hunt her, putting her son and the man she loves at great risk. So she returns. We learn later that Atlanna marries King Orvax, the man she was initially running away from, and bears him a son. All this is done under the threat that Curry and his father will be killed if she does not comply with her role in the Atlantian power structure. It is hard to frame what Atlanna endures as Orvax’s wife and the mother of his son as anything other than sexual assault—she consents only under great duress and coercion. Once she produces a male heir (the possibility of a ruling Queen of Atlantis is, unsurprisingly, never mentioned in the film), she is supposedly killed for becoming too difficult. And yet this story is revealed primarily as a conflict between two men: Curry and his half-brother Orm. Indeed, one of the ways in which we know that Curry has “won” is that the mother chooses him at the end; Orm seems to fully accept his defeat when he asks Atlanna “You’re with him?” and she replies “I am.” Instead of being a fully developed, independent character, Atlanna is important only in how she mediates the relationship between her two sons.

Additionally, it seems as though no lessons have been learned by Atlanna’s tragic fate, as Mera is promised to Orm, also against her own desires. The daughter of King Nereus, Mera is willing to marry Orm for the good of her people, but clearly has very little control over her own destiny in a society where marriages are arranged at the will and desires of the men in charge. Despite this, Mera is also astoundingly competent. She finds Curry, risks everything to try to convince him to come to Atlantis, saves him from death in the Ring of Fire (in fact, she seems to easily defeat Orm using her magical abilities), cleverly solves clues leading them to the trident, and holds her own in a fight against Atlantean soldiers—all welcome attributes for a female character in a big-budget action superhero movie. Fittingly for Aquaman, Mera never considers ruling herself; all her actions go to supporting Curry in his ascendancy. She functions as what Joseph Campbell calls supernatural aid, a character that exists to help the hero in some vital way, 39 or what Vladimir Propp calls a helper, a character that “place[s] themselves at the disposal of the hero.” 40 Both positions center the hero. While in Arthurian legend this position is typically held by Merlin, situating Mera in this subordinate role also adds another dimension—the possibility of a romantic connection, as Mera becomes another site over which Curry and Orm battle for dominance. Curry, after defeating Orm with the trident of Atlan, also claims Mera as a prize, demonstrating his superior virility through winning the hand of the heroine.

The gendered violence against female characters is challenged in no real way. While we are meant to feel that Atlanna’s fate was unfair, nothing is done to suggest that it is the system that needs to be dismantled. Instead, we simply install a good king, a hero king, who viewers have been encouraged to identify as righteous and deserving, thereby justifying all his actions. While both female characters display the attributes of good rulers, viewers are never meant to seriously consider them as viable leaders. They devote the entire movie to installing the male ruler they feel will better rule instead of questioning the mode of rule itself, or their position in it. Furthermore, the status of women as clearly second-class citizens within this hereditary monarchy isn’t questioned.

Conclusion: The Casting of Jason Momoa

It is unfortunate that Aquaman participates in and, in many ways, resolidifies damaging narratives from centuries-old conceptions of power, particularly because it is the first movie in the DCEU to feature a person of color in the lead. 41 Jason Momoa identifies as Native Hawaiian and Polynesian, and is a stark contrast to the comic book Aquaman, who is light skinned with blonde hair. The movie likewise capitalizes on this: Arthur Curry has Polynesian inspired tattoos covering his arms and torso that are prominently displayed throughout the film and his father is played by Temuera Morrison, a fairly well-known Māori actor. With this casting choice, Curry’s position as a “half-breed” with “mongrel blood” takes on new meaning, particularly because these particular slurs are often used in the United States to denote people who are Indigenous and white. Thus they are intimately tied to the idea of a loss of white purity through miscegenation. 42 Seeing Curry as Aquaman, and accentuating rather than hiding his ethnic differences, could easily have been a catalyst for changing the genre’s messaging on masculinity, purity, and worthiness. Given the fact that Arthurian legend has been appropriated for nationalistic, imperialistic, and sometimes blatant white supremacist purposes, casting Momoa should have been a clear challenge to these kinds of myths of purity. And the film hints at these tensions but does little to consider their implications. 43

Aquaman attempts to elide the worst compulsions of its hero and narrative through the veneer of the King Arthur legend. The potential radical casting of Jason Momoa is largely lost behind the barrage of imagery and plot devices that reinforce a particular type of violent masculinity. It is the foundation of this rule that is problematic. Whether we have a good king or not, the simple fact is that he could, if he so chose, enact this same violence on his subjects. This is something the film does not seem to recognize. And one of the most striking ways the film manages to elide this is through these explicit and implicit homages to King Arthur, a figure audiences have come to accept as good and moral. Perhaps we will see in later movies that Curry has dismantled many of the problematic aspects of Atlantean culture. His position as half-human in the world of the film, and a person of color in our world, perfectly positions Aquaman/Momoa to directly challenge white supremacist views of King Arthur, rightful rule, and who we view as worthy. Unfortunately, given the first installment’s seeming lack of awareness of the tropes it invokes and leaves unchallenged, it does not seem likely. Building on the viewers’ inherent desire to trust and believe in superheroes, and by gesturing towards the myth of King Arthur of Camelot, Aquaman winds up getting away with a lot. If, like all myth, the story of Arthur has been repurposed and transformed by particular authors for particular audiences to suit particular needs, and if each new iteration of Arthur reflects the ways in which the past is used by an author “to benefit their own positioning in the present,” 44 one must ask what it means for Aquaman to present a King Arthur whose rule relies on heredity, misogyny, and violence.


  • For more, see Marshall McLuhan, The Mechanical Bride: Folklore of Industrial Man, 1951; Frederic Wertham, Seduction of the Innocent, 1954; Umberto Eco, “The Myth of Superman,” 1972; Robert Jewett and John Shelton Lawrence, Captain America and the Crusade Against Evil: The Dilemma of Zealous Nationalism, 2003; C.A. Stabile, “ ‘Sweetheart, This Ain’t Gender Studies’: Sexism and Superheroes,” 2009; Walter Ong, “The Comics and the Super State,” 2013.
  • Robert Jewett and John Shelton Lawrence, Captain American and the Crusade Against Evil (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2003), 400.
  • Charles Hatfield, et al, “Introduction,” In The Superhero Reader (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2013), xiii.
  • Tanya Gold, “These men are bad role models: will my son get over his superhero obsession?” The Guardian, November 10, 2018, (
  • Anthony R. Mills, American Theology, Superhero Comics, and Cinema: The Marvel of Stan Lee and the Revolution of a Genre (New York: Routledge, 2014), 6.
  • Mills, American Theology, 20.
  • Mills, American Theology, 33.
  • Mills, American Theology, 47
  • Mills, American Theology, 47
  • Mills, American Theology, 109-110
  • Mills, American Theology, 110
  • Mills, American Theology, 124
  • Kevin Lee Chiat, “Being a Superhero is Amazing, Everyone Should Try It: Relationality and Masculinity in Superhero Narratives.” PhD diss. (The University of Western Australia, 2021), iii.
  • Editor’s Note: A previous version of this digital article errantly referred to Carl Sell as Carl Sells.
  • Carl Sell, “Recontextualizing the Once and Future King: Arthurian Appropriations from Historia Brittonum to Aquaman and Beyond.” PhD diss. (Indiana University of Pennsylvania, 2020), 5.
  • Alan Lupack and Barbara Tepa Lupack, *King Arthur in America *(Rochester: Boydell & Brewer Ltd., 1999), xi.
  • N.J. Higham, King Arthur: Myth-Making and History. (Milton Park: Routledge, 2002), 6-7; 3.
  • Brian J. Robb, A Brief History of Superheroes. (London: Constable & Robinson Ltd, 2014), 360-361.
  • Robb, A Brief History of Superheroes, 359.
  • Ruth Lexton, “Kingship in Malory’s Morte Darthur.” The Journal of English and Germanic Philology Vol. 110, No. 2 (2011): 173.**
  • Indeed, Sell notes that it was by linking Curry more explicitly to Arthur that the Aquaman of the comics had one of his most famous runs. Sell also notes that it was this run, written by Geoff Johns, that was the inspiration for the film. Johns also served as a writer on the film (“Recontextualizing the Once and Future King ,” 192).
  • Sell notes that Vulko also functions as a Merlin figure by training Arthur in the ways of Atlantis (“Recontextualizing the Once and Future King,” 149).
  • Katherine Toohey, “King Arthur’s Swords.” The Grail Quest Papers: Proceedings of the Grail Quest, edited by Barbara Poston-Anderson (1999), 7. (
  • Robert de Boron, Prose Merlin, edited by John Conlee, University of Rochester TEAMS Middle English Texts Series, 1998, Line 5. (
  • de Boron, Prose Merlin, Lines 21-22.
  • de Boron, Prose Merlin, Lines 68-73
  • de Boron, Prose Merlin, Lines 78-79
  • Arthur, more than Curry, is a “hidden monarch,” as Curry is aware of his parentage. But for each, their “ascension to the throne carries a promise of profound transformation, a confirmation of HEALING” (John Clute and John Grant, Eds. The Encyclopedia of Fantasy. New York, St. Martin’s, 1997, 466).
  • It is a disturbing fact that one of the few superhero movies featuring a hero of color, and the only one in the DCEU, spends a good part of the movie calling Curry a half-breed, who has “tainted mongrel blood.” This will be discussed in more depth later in this analysis, but warrants even further discussion elsewhere.
  • Kathryn Hume, “The Metamorphosis of Empire in the Arthurian Tradition.” Criticism Vol. 59. No. 4 (2017): 626. Hume summarizes the impulse in Britain, writing: “Identifying with the victim of invasion and enjoying their temporary victories block awareness of, or guilt over, belonging to a country that has been a spectacularly successful colonizing aggressor” (628). Reading this type of Arthurian fantasy allows even those who are aware of the moral issues surrounding colonization “to ignore this historical global activity by escaping into the fantasy of resisting intruders” (628). This shifts the focus from what questionable actions your own country might be enacting, to a unifying narrative of powerful resistance. Camelot 3000, a collaboration between American author Mike W. Barr and British author Brian Bolland, is a clear example of this. In this adaptation, Arthur heroically fights an invading army of aliens. The enemy is turned into something “we need not concern ourselves about morally … [and] need feel no guilt at exterminating these apparent vermin” (629). This trend of stories where countries who themselves are colonizers are fictionally invaded are not uncommon—these stories also became popular in the United States as its influence spread over Cuba, the Philippines, and Puerto Rico (Hume 627).
  • Hume, “The Metamorphosis of Empire in the Arthurian Tradition,” 631.
  • Hume, “The Metamorphosis of Empire in the Arthurian Tradition,” 631.
  • Aquaman is in many ways an international film. Its director is James Wan, a Malaysian-born Australian film-maker, and virtually all big-budget movies are slated for international release. However, Aquaman is a historically American superhero, and the Curry in the film is also presented as such. Aquaman made his comics debut in the More Fun Comics anthology series in 1941. He was created by Mort Weisinger and Paul Norris. In the Silver Age of the late 1950s, his backstory as the son of lighthouse keeper Tom Curry and Atlanna was cemented.
  • Lupack and Lupack, King Arthur in America, 59.
  • As Lupack and Lupack explain, this model of “moral knighthood” was used extensively to teach young boys how to behave. Arthurian youth groups, as well as retellings of the Arthurian legend for young people, were popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in the US (69-75).
  • Clute and Grant, Encyclopedia of Fantasy, 466.
  • Thelma S. Fenster, “Introduction.” Arthurian Women: A Casebook. (New York: Garland Publishing, 1996), xx.
  • Fenster, “Introduction,” xiv.
  • Fenster, “Introduction,” xxv.
  • Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Second Edition. (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1949), 70-71.
  • Vladimir Propp, Morphology of the Folktale. Trans Laurence Scott. 2nd Ed. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1968), 45.
  • In the DCEU, only the Justice League’s Cyborg is also played by an actor of color. However, if you include Suicide Squad, the number significantly increases. Even counting the MCU, Aquaman and Black Panther are the only two movies that feature people of color in lead roles. Zoe Saldana as Gamora and Dave Bautista as Drax in Guardians of the Galaxy, while important members of the main cast, take second seat to Peter Quill. Each also spends the movies painted green and red/orange, respectively.
  • Unfortunately, all other members of Atlantis in the film present as white: Atlanna and Orm are both light-skinned, blonde, and blue eyed; Mera is pale with striking red hair; King Nereus is likewise pale with light red hair; and while Vulko does have darker features, he is played by the well-known white actor, Willem Dafoe. Captain Murk, played by Chinese-born actor Ludi Lin, is on screen for only a few seconds and his appearance is highly altered with bleach blonde hair, scars, and ice blue eyes. While we do see a brief glimpse of the crowd during the fight in the Ring of Fire, and there does appear to be some diversity within Atlantis, diversity is not reflected within the Highborns or ruling class we are shown.
  • This is not to diminish the very real impact Momoa has had on representation within superhero films and for fans, particularly for those in the AAPI community, a demographic that is severely under-represented in movies and television.
  • Higham, King Arthur: Myth-Making and History, 3.

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