Each member of DC Comics’ league of heroes has a mythic quality. It’s exciting to see what creative writers and filmmakers do with the core values that each hero represents. Bruce Wayne, the billionaire seven-year-old who chooses to spend his life, infinite wealth, and privilege to become Batman, represents the heroic potential of humanity when gifted with ultimate freedom. The story of Kal-El making his home on Earth is akin to a sci-fi angel who comes to save us from ourselves. His dedication to the members of his new community—despite their foibles—is also about belief in human potential. Wonder Woman, who hails from a culture comprised solely of women, is a powerful representation of Shakti, the divine woman who seeks respect and better integration into our unbalanced culture. Where, in all of this, does Aquaman fall?
Is his name his crippling flaw? Aquaman. Say it: “Aquaman.” It doesn’t roll off the tongue as pleasantly as does “Wonder Woman.” it lacks the majesty of “Superman,” and doesn’t have that one-two, syllable- consonant punch of “Bat-Man.” In a world in which a hero’s name is his identity, this might be the undiagnosed reason behind Aquaman’s failure to garner the respect he deserves. And he does deserve it: he represents a force against environmental threats which gain urgency with every passing year.
Some ridicule Aquaman’s ‘useless’ ability to talk to sea creatures. I’d argue that this is a major strength. This gift shouldn’t be confused with mind control, though: the creatures obey him because they know that he is a true king. He is not just a ruler, but a benevolent keeper of the oceans. Think about it: 71 percent percent of our planet is water. Up to 60 percent of humans’ physical makeup is water. All sentient and non-sentient life cycles need water to stay alive. Once seemingly plentiful, it’s becoming more valuable than diamonds, kryptonite, feminism, and humanity. Considering that almost all of it (96 percent) has been in Aquaman’s domain since 1941, it’s time to hail Aquaman as our much-needed hero of the Earth (way more so than the heavy-handed and short-lived Captain Planet ever was).
DC heroes are inevitably products of the fictional places from which they come: Batman is a product of Gotham; Wonder Woman of Themyscira; Superman of Krypton, Smallville, and Metropolis; and Aquaman of Atlantis. But Gotham is where even the most privileged of privileged little boys can lose his parents to random violence. At least half of the human population would not be able to live in cities modeled after Themiscyra. And Metropolis is owned mostly by a tyrannical businessman who bears a strong resemblance to the real-world 1%. As for Krypton, it was either a doomed planet to begin with or has doomed itself with its obsession with progress. Atlantis, though, works in unison with nature. We should be trying to emulate it in our environmentally-concerned times.
It might seem to some that Aquaman only guards the oceans to protect his home of Atlantis, but it’s clearly a package deal: by protecting Atlantis, Aquaman protects the idea that civilizations and the environment can work together in harmony. As its keeper, Aquaman and his city are greater symbols of hope and heroism than DC’s combined holy trinity.
Maybe it’s because he comes from a heaven beneath the Earth’s crust that Aquaman can find enough balance in his life to be a hero, husband, and father. I’m not saying that one must have a family to feel fulfilled and happy, but in the superhero worlds of Marvel and DC, in which almost every hero has sacrificed their personal lives to be protectors, it is an additional triumph that the king of Atlantis manages both roles.
Superhero comics give us many great male role models but offer few father figures among them. Aquaman is one of them. At his finest, Aquaman is a king who respects his domain and subjects while also being relatable (through fatherhood). He inspires us to protect the things that matter most: our planet, our fellow creatures and people, and our families.