Every week in a new installment of “Leading Questions”, the young, lantern jawed Publisher of Comics Bulletin Mark Stack will ask Co-Managing Editor Chase Magnett a question he must answer. Except for these next few weeks. The tables have turned onto the other foot as Chase prepares for his impending nuptials, and it falls to him to question and Mark to answer. Chase doesn’t plan on taking it easy on Mark. In fact, he might just ask him about things he knows nothing about just to watch him squirm.
Why are Aquaman’s Aryan features just as disposable as Iron Fist’s?
A lot of other, more qualified people have tackled the Iron Fist debacle before me, so I’ll just summarize it quickly: 1) white guys learning kung fu from fantastical Asian masters and becoming The Greatest Kung Fu Fighter the World Has Ever Seen is a tired, appropriative story that needs to be retired, and 2) if Danny Rand being an outsider is important to his story then being a handsome, shredded white dude isn’t the most effective choice for making him fill that role. Lewis Tan, an Asian-American actor who auditioned for the role of Iron Fist before being cast as a one-off adversary, had this to say in a recent Vulture interview:
There’s no more of an outsider than an Asian-American: We feel like outsiders in Asia and we feel like outsiders at home.
Portraying Danny Rand as Asian-American makes him an outsider in the entirely fictional, magical world K’un-Lun and an outsider back home in the United States. It supplements character, adding a new level of interpretation that isn’t there for a white character who sticks out in K’un-Lun but can easily blend and be treated very well back at home.
Iron Fist is a character that has inherent problems built into his existence as a white character. Aquaman doesn’t have that baggage, but the reasons for ditching his white, Aryan features are largely the same.
The current origin of Aquaman, the one written by DC Comics’ Chief Creative Officer Geoff Johns, is simple: Arthur Curry is the son of a lighthouse keeper and the queen of Atlantis who later becomes king of Atlantis after finding it as a young adult. It’s simple, and it took a surprisingly long time to arrive at such an easy, streamlined origin. Geoff Johns is working on the movies now, too, so this is guaranteed to be the origin that’s used on film. There used to be a wrinkle involving Arthur being abandoned as a baby because of an Atlantean superstition against people with blonde hair, but that seems to have been (thankfully) ditched over time. The prejudice Arthur faces as king of Atlantis isn’t about his hair color, it’s about his outsider status from being raised on land.
Notice how I said Aquaman faces prejudice for being an outsider? And how that has nothing to do with his physical appearance? Being blonde and white doesn’t add anything to the character. You end up with him being a character who blends in perfectly on land while also facing pushback for being a foreign-born monarch in his kingdom. So, if being white doesn’t add anything then it stands to reason that changing his race doesn’t take anything away.
It’s old news that Jason Momoa, an actor with Native Hawaiian and Native American ancestry, is portraying Aquaman in Warner Bros. live-action films based on DC Comics. The actor expressed excitement to ComicBook.com over bringing his Polynesian roots to the part:
[T]he greatest thing for me is that Polynesians, our gods, Kahoali, Maui, all these water gods, so it’s really cool and a honor to be playing a [water] character. And there’s not too many brown superheroes, so I’m really looking forward to representing the Polynesians, the natives.
The first, most obvious thing that you get from changing Aquaman’s race is that you represent more people. Momoa said it himself, how many brown superheroes do you tend to see onscreen? And how many of them get to be the badass figure that Momoa’s Aquaman is aiming for? That’s a good thing to do. You can tell the exact same story about a Polynesian Aquaman facing prejudice as an outsider in Atlantis as you can with a white one. Or you can tell a more nuanced one.
A Polynesian Arthur Curry could go his whole life on the surface feeling like he doesn’t fit in due to his race and special abilities, and then encounter xenophobia when he finally comes to Atlantis. This character becomes an outsider everywhere and there’s a lot of real and fantastical drama to be found there. This doesn’t seem likely to happen, but the casting announcements for the other Atlanteans in Justice League and Aquaman have been resoundingly white. That opens up another potential story about a Polynesian Aquaman combating white supremacy within the kingdom he now rules. Again, we’re probably not going to see that on film, but the racial makeup of that cast is certainly going to lend itself to readings.
And that’s the entire, simple case for why Aquaman’s race can so easily be changed. Doing so doesn’t have to change anything about the character and his story, but it can provide high-profile representation while also opening up new storytelling avenues that weren’t previously available. Good things can happen when publishers and creators challenge the “this is the way it’s always been” thinking that upholds decisions made during a period where those creators thought a lead character being white was just standard.