Why a Hawaiian Aquaman makes sense
[Note from the editor: This review is by prospective staff writer Hex. Visit her blog!]
I’d like to start this article with a preemptive defense of Aquaman. Before you scroll down to leave a comment about how lame Aquaman is, I ask that you look at the following image.
Now, on to the article.
Recently, it was announced Jason Momoa will be playing Aquaman in the upcoming Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice. I won’t go into the stupidity of racist responses to an ethnic minority portraying a typically Caucasian fictional character. That topic was eloquently laid to rest on this site by Solkir, and I have nothing new to add. What I want to address is why a Polynesian Aquaman makes perfect sense. (For the purposes of this article, I’ll refer specifically to Hawai’i, as that’s what I’m most familiar with, but a lot of what I’m about to say can be applied to other Polynesian or islander cultures).
First, let’s look at Arthur Curry’s origin story. While his original origin was that of an air-breather who acquired his abilities by studying the ruins of a lost underwater city, it’s since been rewritten. Now it reads something like this: Aquaman is Arthur Curry, son of Tom Curry, marine life enthusiast (not to be confused with Tim Curry, the actor) and Atlanna. His powers come from his mother’s Atlantean blood. There’s nothing definitive about this backstory that indicates what race Arthur would or should be. His mother may be a descendant of ancient Greeks (which is where the myth of Atlantis comes from), but his father could be from anywhere and be of any ethnicity. So why does a Hawaiian Aquaman make sense when his origins can be ethnically ambiguous? Because of the rest of his story.
Aquaman’s Atlantean physiology gives him the usual set of superhuman powers (strength, endurance, dexterity, etc.), as well as his most iconic power, which is to manipulate and influence sea life. Therefore, it would make sense if he culturally identifies with people who have a close connection to water. On islands, seafaring tends to be a major source of food, giving natives an intimate understanding of that world. In fact, in Feathered Gods and Fishhooks, Patrick Kirch states that Hawaiians had “sophisticated knowledge of the marine world, in many cases surpassing that of Western marine biologists.” If Tom was Hawaiian and felt this connection with his ancestry, he could share that wisdom and respect with his partner and child.
Recently, writers have made Aquaman’s character more self-aware, especially regarding his abilities. Instead of focusing on his powers, they focus on his leadership, his prowess as a warrior, and the difficulties he faces as a person of mixed backgrounds. These are also things that Hawaiians can relate to.
Aquaman is “the king of the seven seas”, and Hawai’i had a well respected monarchy that lasted until 1893 when it was overthrown. Aquaman is a skilled fighter in both hand to hand combat as well as with his trident, and Hawaiian warriors often utilized spears. Arthur doesn’t always feel as if he belongs because of his mixed background, and that’s something a lot of Hawaiians face today. For Hawaiians, it’s mostly because people don’t think their culture exists. They’re told that they’re American, as if 55 years of statehood can erase over a thousand years of cultural growth. Arthur is neither human, nor Atlantean. Hawaiians are neither American, nor non-American.
Even the public’s opinion of Atlantis mimics that of Hawai’i. People know stories, and they have ideas about what it must be like, but the actual reality is sometimes significantly skewed. In the DC Universe, Atlantis is not exactly The Little Mermaid. Atlantis is politically diverse, technologically advanced, and its people are more mammalian than marine. In the same way, there’s more to Hawai’i than luaus, leis, and hula dancing. The most famous Hawaiian singer (Israel “Iz” Kamakawiwo’ole) was a huge advocate for Hawaiian sovereignty, but people don’t tend to think of that when they hear “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”. People don’t understand Atlantis, and that’s something any minority culture can relate to.
Of course, mainlanders think Aquaman is lame. In the comics, he’s a hero in their image, but he’s not their hero by design. Jason Momoa playing him will change Aquaman’s design by making him a hero in a more logical image, and for that I am grateful.