Aquaman is a delight from start to finish, but after the joy of the film fades, one question remains: was Orm right?
The main thing driving Aquaman’s villain (played with relish by Patrick Wilson) is an abandonment complex, as he blames his half-brother Aquaman (Jason Momoa) and the entire surface world for the death of their mother (Nicole Kidman) as punishment for having fallen in love with a human rather than an Atlantean. The less personal reason he’s so eager to wage war on humanity, however, is marine pollution. Which, frankly, makes sense.
In James Wan’s splashy film, the only visuals that aren’t candy-colored are those that depict just how much trash has been dumped into the sea, not to mention oil spills and similar pollution. In combination with reports of climate change and coral degradation, brief as they are, the scenes are sobering enough to make you think make a viewer empathetic to Orm’s grand plan. Maybe we do all deserve to be washed away into the sea.
The wannabe Ocean Master’s wish for humans to cut it the hell out is a reasonable one — one we’re fighting in real life every day — and it’s the biggest loose end that remains by the time Aquaman ends. Sure, Orm is sent to sea jail (?) and Arthur is happily installed as King of Atlantis, but they’re no closer to figuring out a solution to stopping humans from continuing to mess up the sea’s ecology. Maybe that’ll be the plot of Aquaman 2: Arthur Curry addresses the UN. It wouldn’t be as much fun as this movie is, but Arthur is a king now! He has responsibilities!
Beyond being distinguished by drab visuals, the pollution is arguably the only element in Aquaman that strives for material realism, which only make it harder to ignore. It’s a concern that’s almost Hayao Miyazaki-esque, as the Studio Ghibli co-founder’s films often feature flights of fancy that are built upon how well (or poorly) we treat the planet that we live on. Princess Mononoke tackled the effects of industry; Spirited Away featured a river spirit disfigured by years of pollution; Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind examined ecosystems and understanding.
Miyazaki’s films possess a sense of poise that Aquaman lacks, but more importantly, they offer some kind of resolution. After drowning the forest in black smoke, and tearing the animal population apart with raw-power firearms, Princess Mononoke ends with a pledge from the people of Irontown to do better. Nausicaä, which first poses giant Ohm bugs as threats capable of destroying entire settlements, ends with rebuilding of the city (following a human-instigated war), and a glimmer of hope in working with the Ohm to clean up a polluted landscape.
Aquaman doesn’t have a character that represents the interests of humans. Arthur is both a big dummy (not a slam, we love him for this) and only half-human despite identifying more closely with his human ancestry for the majority of the film. That lack of proper human delegation that means that, while Atlantis’ rulership is sorted out, there’s no real progress in terms of figuring out how land and sea can coexist peacefully. (Although the post-credit scene offers a potential candidate for the sequel.)
In fairness, it’s not down to Aquaman to figure out how to solve marine pollution and the effects of climate change, but the introduction of the idea as a harbinger of the apocalypse rather than supervillains simply plotting to blow up the Earth is a striking shift. The argument Orm is making isn’t wrong. We are destroying marine ecology, and the way the situation is getting more dire is of our own making.