James Wan's Aquaman just swam past a record breaking $1 billion at the box office, and now that the world has had a chance to meet Arthur Curry it's time to look at just what made the blockbuster smash so special. Aquaman has long been one of the most enigmatic, misunderstood and downright magical characters in the DC Universe because of his underwater setting and skill set that includes talking to fish. But the not always acknowledged thing that has truly helped him stand out is the brilliantly strong women who've often been at the center of his stories, something that Wan's film managed to capture wonderfully with its representation of his mother Atlanna and future wife Mera.
The mother of Aquaman first swam into existence in 1959's ADVENTURE COMICS #260, with art by the incomparable Ramona Fradon, who was one of the first credited woman to draw a comic at DC. Atlanna has pretty much always—save for his very first appearances—been a part of Arthur's origin. The queen of Atlantis has been his mother for most of his comic book career and whether she fell in love with a human lighthouse keeper—like in Wan's movie and the most generally accepted origin—or was the beau of the great wizard Atlan, she has always been one of the driving forces behind Arthur and his connection to the ocean.
In the film, she's brought to life by Nicole Kidman who gets to have a whole bunch of fun as an ass-kicking royal who seems most similar to the Atlanna introduced in Geoff Johns and Ivan Reis' comic book run. One of the strengths of Wan's vision for the movie is just how important the relationship between Atlanna and Arthur's father Tom is to the story of the King of the Seas.
At its heart, Aquaman is about familial love and the ties that bind us, and with her performance Kidman holds the key to the trauma and division the drives the major narrative conflict of the film. Arthur can never forgive Atlantis or Orm for the fact that the previous king sentenced his mother to death, and Orm hates Arthur for being, in his eyes, the reason his mother was killed.
There's something brilliant in what Wan and his team decided to do though, as instead of killing Atlanna, like so many women in comic books and comic book films before her, they make her a survivor. A woman who actively beats an inevitable death and becomes some kind of dreamlike warrior—with one of best looks in the film, and that's saying something as Kym Barrett's costuming department did a spectacular job—who ends up playing a vital part in saving both of Arthur's clashing worlds.
Kidman's Atlanna doesn't just have a connection to Arthur and Orm, but in fact helped raise her son’s future betrothed. This is revealed during a fleeting exchange between Mera and Orm when she defends the surface world and tries to argue for peace rather than war.
The flame-haired princess of Xebel has always played a vital part in Arthur's life and story from her first introduction in 1963's AQUAMAN #11. In the movie, she's an amalgamation of her long history that’s played wonderfully by Amber Heard, who brings a sense of fun to the often-serious aquatic queen. Much like the comics, Mera is a force of nature, and in the context of the film is more often than not the hero who saves Arthur and the day. Wan's recognition of the importance of Mera to Aquaman's story is another vibrant strength, as she's never a damsel in distress, and the movie spends a lot of time building a rapport between the two that could lend gravity to a future exploration of their relationship more similar to the comics.
Speaking of the comics, one has to wonder—and perhaps dread—if a future movie might not adapt one of Arthur and Mera’s most infamous stories. The death of Aquababy is a story arc which shook Aquaman and his comic book fandom to the core. Not only did it see the untimely demise of the Mera and Arthur's only son at the hands of Black Manta, but it was the start of an ongoing storyline which would examine that grief and the impact it had on the regal pair. It's rare that a superhero comic commits to exploring the long-term ramifications after the death of a core character, but in this startling run, we saw Mera leave Arthur, unable to forgive him for not being able to save their son. It's a heartbreaking arc that paid an unusual amount of attention to the woman who had stood by the side of Arthur through so much.
Just like Atlanna, Mera has gone through multiple iterations throughout the years, and it's likely that the massive success of Aquaman will shape her future. The incredulous intelligence, fearlessness and strength that Amber Heard brought to the role will surely help to keep the independent heroine as a character in her own right, elevated as she always rightfully has been from being "just" the wife of Arthur Curry. In fact, the Xebellian queen has just had her first self-titled comic book miniseries and is about to be a huge part of the rollout of DC’s young adult imprint, DC Ink, with an original graphic novel called MERA: TIDEBREAKER.
The strength and centering of Atlanna and Mera may have come as a shock to viewers who are used to seeing women sidelined or, even worse, fridged for the sake of their male counterparts. It shouldn't have been a surprise to the fans of the comics who have been following these incredible women for decades. And though it's Arthur who eventually puts on his iconic orange and green suit, there's no question that he would have never made it without the brilliant women at his side.
Aquaman, starring Jason Momoa and Amber Heard, is now in theaters.
Rosie Knight writes about comics, movies and TV for DCComics.com and DCUniverse.com. Be sure to follow her on Twitter at @RosieMarx.