In season 2 of Amazon’s The Boys, disgraced superhero The Deep (Chace Crawford) is offered the opportunity to get back into the world’s most powerful superhero team after losing his spot in season 1. A parody of Aquaman, The Deep has gills and the ability to communicate with aquatic creatures. He’s often frustrated that his niche skill set means he only gets sent on missions near water, but he’s finally given the chance to really shine when the superhero-killing vigilante Billy Butcher (Karl Urban) is spotted on a boat.
The Deep doesn’t waste the opportunity. He gathers a squad of sharks to attack the boat, forcing Billy and his allies to try to race to shore. As they do, The Deep emerges from the waves on the back of a massive whale, standing proudly as he faces down his foes. Yet what should be The Deep’s moment of triumph ends with a humiliating and particularly gory defeat.
It’s a sad moment for a perpetually pathetic hero. The Deep started season 1 as a member of the Justice League equivalent the Seven, but was kicked off after he pressured a new recruit to perform oral sex on him by persuading her he had influence over the team’s leader, Homelander (Antony Starr). In actuality, The Deep has never commanded any respect from anyone, though he believes he has the potential to be a real hero. His attempts to get others to take him seriously mirror the challenge writers have traditionally faced while trying to do the same for Aquaman.
The original 1990s animated series The Tick may have best diagnosed the Aquaman problem in its parody of the character, Sewer Urchin. While the other big superheroes tolerate the defender of the city’s sewer systems, he isn’t viewed as particularly useful until they actually enter his domain. There, he turns out to have vast resources and previously unseen skills. As Sewer Urchin puts it, on his home turf, he’s “the apotheosis of cool.”
While The Deep and Aquaman are super-strong and tough, they’re defined by their aquatic abilities, particularly the inherently silly power of talking to fish. The Deep seems to enjoy chatting with dolphins or lobsters, but his bumbling makes his powers as much of a curse as a blessing. He’s constantly trying to save his new aquatic friends, but efforts as mundane as buying a lobster and grand as springing a dolphin from an aquarium always seem to wind up in the animal getting killed. When he learns that his abilities aren’t inherent, but were given to him through exposure to super-soldier serum Compound V, he talks about the horrors of hearing goldfish at a pet store beg for their lives: “It didn’t have to be this way. I could have been normal.”
Aquaman talking to fish worked just fine when he was part of the goofy Justice League-inspired animated series Super Friends, which ran from 1973 to 1985. The writers of the comedic team-up animated series Batman: The Brave and the Bold (2008-2011) leaned into his ability to make friends with all manner of strange creatures, making him one of the most entertaining recurring characters. Voiced by John DiMaggio of Futurama and Adventure Time, the bombastic Brave and the Bold version of Aquaman is perpetually shouting “Outrageous!” as he travels around, accompanied by an obnoxiously friendly dolphin. During a Fantastic Voyage-inspired episode, he even uses his telepathy to summon the aid of a lymphocyte. He’s a man of two realms, and he shows outsized enthusiasm for both, whether he’s working with Batman on a mission under the seas, or taking his family on an extremely mundane road trip across the United States.
Using the character and power in more serious stories has proved to be more of a challenge. The early-2000s Justice League animated series kept him out of the main cast, instead bringing in characters like Martian Manhunter and Hawkgirl, who were more at home on dry land. Aquaman is still a force to be reckoned with. In his introductory arc, he cuts off his own hand to avoid being trapped by his evil brother Orm. He comes back for a second Lovecraft-inspired arc where he goes toe-to-toe with Wonder Woman, defeating her by holding her beneath the water. It’s a good fight, but it only underscores how tightly his power is linked to his location.
That matchup plays out again in comics, in the 2011 crossover story Flashpoint, which imagines the world of DC Comics transformed by the Flash changing the past. In a world without Superman or a Justice League, Aquaman and Wonder Woman meet for the first time not as superheroes, but as monarchs representing Atlantis and Themyscira, respectively. When a romantic relationship and budding alliance between the two magical realms sours, they go to war and cause enormous damage.
The core Flashpoint miniseries was written by Geoff Johns, who continued to work on redeeming Aquaman’s image later that same year in the New 52 series. He quickly addresses the talking-to-fish thing by having the hero walk into a restaurant and order a plate of fish and chips. When other diners express horror, he explains that he can’t actually talk to animals with such unsophisticated brains — he actually telepathically pushes them to do what he wants. He does actually converse with dolphins, though. It’s a pretty elegant distinction that gets around the fact that dolphins eat a lot of fish themselves. (It also lets Aquaman avoid the psychological trauma The Deep regularly experiences.)
The 2018 live-action DCEU Aquaman film uses much of the groundwork that Johns built to try to make the hero an A-list star. Jason Momoa’s Arthur Curry is reluctantly drawn into Atlantean politics, in a not particularly subtle retelling of the myth of King Arthur. His ability to talk to sea creatures is apparently evidence that he is the chosen king of the oceans. Instead of a sword in a stone, there’s a trident he must pull from the grips of a statue, and he gets the chance to do that in part because he can communicate with a lonely leviathan guarding the weapon.
It isn’t really clear why movie-Arthur has this telepathic ability and his half-brother Orm doesn’t, but it’s certainly useful in a film that mostly takes place underwater. Director James Wan and writers David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick and Will Beall let the hero fully immerse himself in his element, showcasing gorgeous bioluminescent sunken cities and horrifying swarms of monsters dwelling in the depths of the Trench. Aquaman resembles the Thor sequels more than a traditional superhero movie in that its conflicts largely don’t involve regular people — instead, they center on royal family politics and the main character’s place in a world of myth.
Aquaman’s power is always defined by his setting and who he’s working with. No matter who’s writing him, he’s often fond of pointing out that the majority of the Earth is covered in water. Even so, it can be hard to set up relevant conflicts in aquatic settings. Focusing his stories entirely on Atlantis makes them work, because he can deal with people who acknowledge and respect the full force of his powers. The Aquaman writers also didn’t have to deal with trying to make other heroes function under the waves, or having him struggle to keep up on the surface. Aquaman works best outside of a superhero team.
Yet that vision of Aquaman just makes The Deep more tragic. He isn’t secretly a scion of a lost empire who needs to claim his destiny and find a whole kingdom of people who will love and accept him. He’s just a guy with gills that give him serious body image issues, and a power no one takes seriously. He thinks he’s a freak, and he’s filled with self-loathing that keeps him from forming meaningful relationships, even as he desperately tries to find adulation as a hero. His reputation and self-esteem are in shambles after he’s kicked off the Seven, causing him to act out in a superpowered version of a celebrity meltdown. He causes a scene at a waterpark in the first episode of season 2 by standing on a playset and shouting at the children splashing around him. While they see the water as fun, he asks them to imagine what he’s seen diving in the Mariana Trench. “It’s dark and it’s cold and you’re so alone,” he sobs. “You’re so goddamn fucking alone.”
The Deep stands alone by never really understanding his place in The Boys’ story, or even understanding the forces around him. There’s no excuse for using lies and sexual coercion to try to feel better about himself, but given that other members of the Seven have murdered people to protect their reputation, he’s far from their worst member. Yet he doesn’t have the strength of will to fight against the corruption of the world’s biggest superheroes and their corporate sponsors. He spends most of season 2 on the plot’s periphery, and ends up even more alone and irrelevant than he started.
That isn’t because of his powers. The show is about people without any powers at all risking everything to fight godlike beings. When the Flash equivalent A-Train (Jessie T. Usher) is also kicked out of The Seven because his super-speed is failing, he fights for it in a plot that’s based on his ingenuity and initiative, rather than his powers. But because no one takes The Deep and his weird abilities seriously, he never feels strong enough to fight for himself. Aquaman can be funny, intimidating, or regal, but The Deep remains a sad joke.
Season 2 of The Boys launched on Amazon on Sept. 4. New episodes appear on Fridays.