Aquaman “Pilot” (part 1 of 11)

SUMMARY: A.C. just wants to swim with dolphins by day, and hit on hot babes at night. Little does he know—or particularly care—that the strength and speed he has underwater are signs of his heritage as an exiled prince of Atlantis.

His idyllic slacker life is interrupted by Nadia, a mermaid assassin who’s been sent to kill A.C., just so the Atlanteans can wage war on land-dwellers for no discernable reason. Meanwhile, a special agent is trying to figure out why people who were lost in the Bermuda Triangle decades ago are returning good as new, like so many shirts back from the drycleaner.

Surrounded by a dyspeptic dad, a Redshirt business partner, and a gruff old alcoholic-turned-sensei, A.C. blunders his way into a shipboard smackdown with Nadia that leaves him wondering just how much more ludicrous his future adventures could possibly become, should he actually go to series.

I think most people’s conception of Aquaman comes from the old Superfriends cartoon. Unfortunately, the Superfriends version of Aquaman was kind of lame. Mostly, he swam around shooting thought donuts out of his head at dolphins, while Superman and Batman were out actually, you know, fighting villains and stuff. The picture I usually have of Aquaman is him hanging out in the Hall of Justice, fetching coffee for the big guys, sharpening their pencils, and occasionally bottoming for them during the long stretches in between cases. He was definitely a second-tier hero.

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This representation was certainly unfair to Aquaman, who held his own in the comics at least as well as any of the other non-Super, non-Bat DC heroes (and the big two could be pretty goofy themselves, as any World’s Finest reader could tell you). In my mind, Aquaman deserved also-ran status a lot less than, say, the Flash, who always seemed redundant to me. Not only can Superman also run fast, but Supes even stole Flash’s shtick of vibrating through walls (both George Reeves and Dean Cain pulled that one on TV).

I’d even give preference to Aquaman over Wonder Woman, whose chief power often seemed to be getting tied up with her own lasso. (Suffering Sappho!)

Caption contributed by Mark

“Dang it, I totally forgot to buy lube.”

There was, in fact, a tiny counterculture for a while dedicated to liking Aquaman precisely because he wasn’t all that. Some of my gay friends had their first superhero crush not on Supes or Batman, but on Aquaman. Maybe because he seemed more approachable, maybe ’cause he’s blonde. Who knows. (There’s actually dialogue about the Aquaman crush thing in The Broken Hearts Club—coincidentally starring Dean Cain—which is one of the approximately six thousand indie gay-twentysomething-themed movies spewed out during the big LezBiGay Nineties.)

Still, there’s a major fundamental problem with the concept of Aquaman, which is this: He’s supposed to be King of the Deep, and yet he’s just so gosh-darned nice. He’s Jimmy Olson in a wetsuit. He wouldn’t be a credible king of Candyland.

Disagree? Consider what Marvel did with the same idea. Who’s their King of the Deep? That’s right: Namor the Sub-Mariner. Namor is so kick-ass he can defeat the Fantastic Four just by winking at Sue Storm. In fact, his revamp in Ultimate Fantastic Four has made him so awesome that Reed and the rest are simply beneath his notice. The heroes end up practically soiling their costumes hoping he doesn’t snap them in half. Granted, Aquaman is a superhero, not a villain, but that’s still no reason to turn him into an ineffectual amphibious boy scout.

These days, thanks to the roaring successes of the Superman, Batman, and Spider-Man movie franchises, every major superhero is now getting the Hollywood fuckover. Forget the fact that Theodore Sturgeon’s Rule is even more dead-on than usual when it comes to superhero movies. Comics fans will still go to see them anyway. And six months later, they’ll buy the DVDs of movies they hate, just to hate them in excruciating detail.

But let’s not lose sight of the fact that even the most awful superhero films still have something going for them. They might have a cool sequence or two buried amongst the chaff (like the bit in Daredevil where we see how he senses form and movement in the rain), or some interesting/controversial innovations to the origin story (pretty much the only reason to talk about Ang Lee’s Hulk), or at least some eye candy (Jessica Alba and Chris Evans in the more recent Fantastic Four—though not even Halle Berry in leather could induce anyone to go see Catwoman).

The small screen, likewise, has seen a recent crop of reboots that reenergized the superhero genre. The ’70s had already proven you could make superhero TV that was serious and dramatic (the soulful, long-suffering Bill Bixby in The Incredible Hulk), or campy and fun (Wonder Woman), or somewhere in between (The Six Million Dollar Man). Touchstones like these spawned a lot of imitative dreck (the uninspired live-action Spider-Man, and what is for many the nadir of superhero TV, Superboy). But finally, around the turn of the century, both special effects technology and the studios’ willingness to plunk down serious cash on the genre had each advanced far enough to bring to fruition several quality superhero and supernatural shows.

The best known and most successful of these is Smallville, which follows an increasingly hunky Tom Welling through the trials of Dawson’s Creek-style teenage angst, only with superpowers. From the outset, the show’s creators, Miles Millar and Al Gough (rhymes with “cough”), showed both a willingness to buck convention (Gasp! Lana Lang is a brunette!) and a reasonable level of commitment to the characters (despite their admission that they’d never actually read the comics).

The casting was inspired (in particular, John Schneider’s rock-solid Jonathan Kent, and Allison Mack as Chloe Sullivan). And the show’s stated mission of taking over the guardianship of Superman from Christopher Reeve (emphasized by having both Reeve and Margot Kidder guest star twice each) legitimized Smallville, while at the same time marginalized the previous decade’s frothy, Doris-and-Rock incarnation of Superman, Lois and Clark.

Around the third season, however, something started to go wrong. Somewhere, Smallville jumped the shark in a big way. And by the time Lana Lang, possessed by a medieval witch, turned up in China delivering round-house kicks to Lex Luthor, fans were becoming seriously alarmed. Across the country, after-show text messages were starting to begin with “WTF??” Some sort of crazy, candy-colored kryptonite must have been lying around the Smallville offices, fucking with the writers’ heads. Did I mention the part about Lana being possessed by a medieval witch?

Part of the problem is that while the teenage interactions of Clark, Lex, and Lana are ideal for short and intense encounters, this prequel material is simply too finite to be explored for years and years. The Clark/Lana puppy love evaporated before the end of the second season, meaning that Lana Lang, a central character, became instantly irrelevant to the show.

Meanwhile, Clark has kept on using his powers every week, in plain view and in broad daylight, forcing bemused viewers to reluctantly conclude that every single citizen of this bucolic Midwest town is either blind, stupid, or both. (Note to Miles and Al: the “Buffy Effect” is not actually supposed to be taken seriously.) Lionel Luthor even spent a week in Clark’s body [!], lifting up tractors and hitting on Lana and Martha Kent (ew!), but even he providentially forgot it all.

Finally, Smallville the town is just too, well, small to have a freak-of-the-week (despite the weird innovation that kryptonite causes super-mutations). So what, then, are they gonna do the rest of the time?

First, they had Jor-El somehow trapped in the walls of a Native American cave outside town, which was just strange (though I love that they got Terence Stamp for the voice). Later, they had to stretch even farther, coming up with things like a season-long search for three super-rocks (which is what eventually took Lana and the gang to Shanghai). The whole thing felt supremely pointless, like they’d sent everyone on a snipe hunt.

But that was just for starters. Did I really just see Michael Rosenbaum hollering, “Kneel before Zod!”? Are you kidding me?

Around the same time the bottom began falling out on the Plausible Plots Bin, random characters from the DC universe, for no good reason, started somehow finding their way to Smallville, Kansas. It was enough of a stretch for Perry White to show up there (fortunately, Michael McKean pulled it off). But then teen Flash sped through (as a juvenile delinquent!), and teen Aquaman turned up in Crater Lake. So, pretty soon you’re expecting Green Lantern to get hired as the new math teacher, or Mayflower to show up as a lunch lady or something.

(Side note on the season five episode “Aqua”, in which teen Aquaman, known as A.C., made his first appearance, played by Alan Ritchson, and not Justin Hartley, who plays A.C. in today’s subject. If you saw it, you know the ending of that episode had one of those blatant fanwank continuity moments that make you want to pick your TV up and shake it violently. A.C. suggests to Clark that they form a “Junior Lifeguard Association”, but Clark says he’s not ready for the “JLA” yet. Hahahaha—whatever.)

Caption contributed by Mark

“Okay, how about a ‘Jalapeño Lovers Alliance?” “No.”

This trend, or gimmick, only got worse. Season six was built partly around a seven-story arc featuring Oliver Queen, also known as Green Arrow. Sure, why not? That’s what Smallville needs: more archery!

In retrospect, the creators probably came up with the idea to do a spin-off teen superhero series to kill time between the acid flashbacks that helped them write plot twists for Smallville. And then, after no doubt consulting a ouija board or polling their housepets, they settled on Aquaman. I expect the thinking went something like this: “Look how much everyone drools over Tom Welling. And we make him wear a shirt!”

Reaction to the announcement of a new Aquaman series was decidedly mixed. On the one hand, it was being produced by Millar and Gough, who had brought us Smallville seasons one and two. On the other hand, it was being produced by Millar and Gough, who had brought us Smallville seasons three, four, and five.

Given their recent track record, fans started wondering if it was possible for a show to jump the shark before the pilot was even in the can. The answer, unfortunately, is yes.

In many ways, Aquaman is the anti-Smallville. For one thing, the casting was exceptionally poor. The producers committed the twin sins of miscasting talented actors (Ving Rhames as an Atlantean sensei? Lou Diamond Phillips as the blandest dad this side of Growing Pains?), while at the same time thrusting unwatchable unknowns into key roles (in this case, the two leads, Justin Hartley and Denise Quiñones). The minor supporting roles, meanwhile, are populated by either scenery-chewing hams, or instantly forgettable non-entities. The end result is that nearly every frame of this show contains someone who shouldn’t be there.

Second, the premise is conceptually flawed. More on that to come, but at this point let’s just say that they drained away every element of Aquaman that could have been remotely interesting, and then filled the void with a knocked-together monster/sp00k plot that’s as awkwardly pointless as it is boring. So instead of the sense of wonder intrinsic to early Smallville, a bored cynicism is smeared across heroes, villains, and bystanders alike.

To cap it all off, the producers threw in a sparkless romance and then plunked the whole thing down on the set of Riptide. Well gee, with all that going for it, how could it fail?

Alas, Aquaman was not picked up by the CW, the new broadcast network congealed out of the merger of the WB and UPN. Under normal circumstances, any nascent network would drool over a sexy spin-off of a sexy franchise, to draw attention to itself and pull in new viewers. But unfortunately, that only works when the spin-off doesn’t suck. And Aquaman most definitely sucks. (People magazine’s verdict: “Dumber than a carp.” That’s for sure.)

And get this: Guess who later went on to play Green Arrow on Smallville? That’s right: A.C. himself, Justin Hartley! Miles and Al must have really felt bad for the guy after the Aquaman pilot got reamed. Casting him as Green Arrow is practically an admission of guilt that they totaled his vehicle and had to buy him a new one. Well, if you keep trying, guys, I’m sure he’ll be believable as some superhero. Someday.

Caption contributed by Mark

“All I know is, they’d better not try sticking me in that Wonder Woman costume.”

Aquaman was so bad that the CW chose instead to renew its creakiest veterans (7th Heaven and Gilmore Girls, both returning for a record-breaking 64th season) while green-lighting a handful of dubious newcomers like that one where Donnie Wahlberg, of all people, starred in a rip-off of The Fugitive, only with a wife and kids. (Which lasted all of four episodes.) I bet they would have gone as far as to hustle together Gilmore Babies, or Everybody Also Hates Chris’s Cousin Francis just to keep from having to pick up this stinker.

Nonetheless, the unsold, unmourned Aquaman pilot, “Mercy Reef”, was settling comfortably into the watery grave that it would have otherwise occupied for all eternity, when it was abruptly resurrected. And its savior came completely out of left field: iTunes.

Apple’s addition of $1.99 TV show downloads to its monolithic music service took the online world by storm. And it seems a lot of people are more than willing to debit the price of a Starbucks grande just to satisfy their curiosity. Especially if it involves guilty pleasures like hunky guys with supernatural powers. So someone at Time Warner must have said, Hey, let’s toss the Aquaman pilot on the heap, and before you can say “How bad could it be?” it became the top TV show download on iTunes at the end of July 2006.

That’s how I got suckered in. And there’s only one reason I didn’t drag this abomination to the trash icon five seconds after the closing credits rolled: I knew I could use it for the greater good. I resolved to rush right back into that inferno of suckitude and rescue as many souls as I could by writing this recap. If I can prevent just one person from wasting their time and money downloading Aquaman, this recap will have been worth it.

Mark "Scooter" Wilson

Mark is a history guy, a graphics guy, a guy for whom wryly cynical assessments of popular culture are the scallion cream cheese on the toasted everything bagel of life. He spends his time teaching modern history at Brooklyn College, pondering the ancient Romans at the CUNY Graduate Center, and conjuring maps and illustrations for ungrateful bankers at various Manhattan monoliths. Readers are welcome to guess at reasons why he's nicknamed Scooter, with the proviso that all such submissions are guaranteed to be rather more interesting than the truth. Mark lives in the Midwood section of Brooklyn with a happy-go-lucky, flop-eared dog named Chiyo who is probably, at this very moment, waiting patiently for her walkies.

Multi-Part Article: Aquaman "Pilot"

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