James Wan and Aquaman

How Jason Momoa Makes Aquaman His Own

Director James Wan tells Playboy about Momoa's goofiness, Batman and not letting go of horror

Courtesy: Warner Bros.

“You damn fool! You’re more useless than Aquaman!” Stewie Griffin once screamed during an episode of Family Guy. The exclamation was followed by one of Family Guy’s signature cutaway gag scenes where a distressed female is pinned to sand by a male attacker on the beach. Aquaman emerges from the water in the background and delivers lines such as: “Hey, hey, hey, let her go!” followed by “Or, or I don't know, man, but you're lucky you're not doing that over here, in the ocean, or else—or I would stop you!” and “Oh, you're in for it now, buddy. I got, like, five fish coming to help!”

You really can’t blame Family Guy for thinking Aquaman was lame. That’s pretty much how the orange and green spandex-wearing Atlantean was perceived, most notably during the Super Friends era of the late 1970s and early '80s. Most saw him as a feeble sidekick to the stronger Justice League members such as Batman and Superman who was only useful when conflicts took place in the water. He talked to fish, rode seahorses and occasionally used dolphins as surfboards—that’s about it.

Thankfully, he’s been reinvented and beefed up a bit throughout the years in the comics and animated movies and TV shows. But he’s a total intimidating badass now, mostly thanks to director Zack Snyder casting the Dothraki warlord himself, Jason Momoa, in 2016’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Momoa reprised the role in Justice League, once again delivering a grittier depiction of the character. He’s now a tattooed, mixed-race hulking figure with long dark hair and a menacing stare—and yes, he has more noticeable superstrength and can likely throw down with Superman and put up a good fight. Aquaman has his own stand-alone film, this time helmed by modern-day horror maestro James Wan (Saw, Insidious, The Conjuring), a surprising and inspired choice for director.
Wan comes from a background of mostly low to moderately budgeted horror films, but in 2015, he did something outside of his usual wheelhouse and delivered Furious 7—arguably, the best of the Fast and Furious franchise, allowing Wan to prove he was more than just a “horror guy.” Furious 7 would also act as the training wheels for Wan to work with considerably larger budgets, and he takes another major leap forward with Aquaman, his biggest, most ambitious movie yet. For those worrying about Aquaman’s quality, fear not. It delivers. It’s no secret that DC Comics has had a bumpy road with their shared universe of movies. Reviews have been less than stellar for some, especially when compared to Marvel Studio’s track record, but Wonder Woman proved the potential, and Aquaman is another step in the right direction.

Part of what makes Aquaman so wonderful is that Wan embraces the comic book origins and totally went for it, saddle-wearing sharks and all. On paper, it seems like this shouldn’t have worked. The movie is bonkers, and we mean that in the most delightful way. Wan took the new, grittier Momoa version of Aquaman and threw him in the fantastical, vibrant world from the comics. Yes, there are vast, glowing underwater cities, Atlanteans riding various sea creatures, horrific monsters from the deep and sure, Aquaman even communicates with fish and other ocean life, but not in a campy way. We also get to see the charming and romantic side of the character, thanks to Momoa's own real-life charm.
Those who love all of the cartoons and the designs and familiar elements from the comics will be pleased. Nothing was toned down or made more realistic. This is a colorful, globe-trotting fantasy adventure and a true comic book movie through and through. If Warner Bros. is looking to recalibrate their DC Comics shared universe, it’s quite possible that James Wan is their answer—that’s, of course, if the busy man is up for the gig. This is one of the questions Playboy asks Wan during our chat with him about Aquaman. We also discuss his evolution from smaller films to high-budget blockbusters, how he has a lot in common with director Sam Raimi and whether or not he plans to give the horror genre a rest. 

You come from a background of mostly low to moderately budgeted horror films. With Furious 7, you got a taste of what a big budget is like. But Aquaman is a major leap forward for you. It’s a big, special-effects extravaganza, and it’s probably the most green screen you’ve ever had to work with. For a guy who is used to having living and breathing sets, were you ever overwhelmed by this production?
No. I’ve wanted to make these movies for the longest time. I feel like I’ve kind of been training myself to finally get to this point. And I’m finally here, and I’m very happy that I got the opportunity to do one of these—as you pointed out—big, visual effects-type of movie. I’m a big fan of world-creation fantasy films. I grew up with a lot of films like Star Wars and Lord of the Rings, stuff like that. I love those films, and I’ve always hoped that one day I would get the opportunity to do that. Making a movie like Aquaman really allowed me to dive into the fantasy world of it all and just embrace it.

This movie embraces the comic book origins in a big way. All of the vibrant colors and silly aspects of the Aquaman mythos are present—and by silly, I mean that in a positive way. You just went for it and did the polar opposite of what Chris Nolan did with his Batman films. For a while, it seemed like some comic book movies were trying to be gritty and realistic. Did the studio support your colorful vision from the get-go, or was there ever any pushback?
If you’re doing a Batman type of movie, I think the approach would be to keep it more grounded, right? He doesn’t have superpowers, so he’s actually a person who lives in the real world, even though he lives in Gotham City, but it’s basically like a heightened crime version of the real world. I can’t really do that approach with a character like Aquaman, who rides seahorses and talks to fish. [Laughs] That’s what we know of this character, and if you go back to the comic book, he comes from a really outlandish, fantasy world. That would’ve been the wrong approach. It would’ve been the wrong look for it. I want my Atlantis to be vibrant. I want people to come out of the movie and say, “Oh, my God, I want to visit Atlantis for a holiday.” That was my goal, so that’s what I set out to do. I pitched to the studio, "This is my vision for the film," and they were very supportive from day one.

Were you a fan of the character while growing up?
I didn’t grow up with this character. But he was so iconic, I knew of him. And I knew who he was in a peripheral kind of way. It wasn’t until I started contemplating the gig that I started exploring his world and who he is, and then I fell in love with him. I was like, “This is really cool.” This is a really interesting character. The comic books had a lot of interesting things to say, like about the environment. I don’t know of any other superheroes out there who touch on the environment the way that this guy can. I felt like there were a lot of great things.
I didn’t bring Jason Momoa to Aquaman. I brought Aquaman to Jason.
I know Zack Snyder laid out the groundwork for this new version of Aquaman, but thank you for making him a badass. I’m sure that you’re aware that Aquaman was sometimes seen as the lame member of the Justice League, especially during the Super Friends era. People joked that he had feeble powers and was only useful when conflicts occurred in the water.
Listen, I mean, once you cast Jason Momoa … [laughs] any sort of jokey thing gets thrown out the window. You know, Jason put so much of his personality into it. That was something that I wanted from day one. When I met Jason, I was like, “You know what? I’m going to capitalize on what this guy has.” This guy has a lot of swagger to him, he plays the tough character really well, but I want people to see how charming and funny he actually is and how goofy he is in person as well. So I really lean into the Jason Momoa-ness of it all. I didn’t bring Jason to Aquaman. I brought Aquaman to Jason.

It’s great seeing Dolph Lundgren as King Nereus. He’s in Creed II, and now he’s in Aquaman. What made you pick Dolph out of all the rest?
It’s pretty cool. I talked to him before it was even announced that he was going to be in Creed II, so it was really cool to be a part of the Dolph Lundgren renaissance, right? [Laughs] It’s as simple as, I’m a big fan of Dolph. I’ve loved the guy’s work for the longest time, and I’ve always felt that he’s a great, charismatic actor. Obviously, he’s known for his big, tough-action roles, but he’s actually a very charming guy. For the role of King Nereus, he’s an older king now, but at one point, he was a great warrior. With Dolph Lundgren, you believe that.
Some feel that the DC Comic movies have been hit-and-miss lately, partly due to the lack of vision and leadership. There doesn’t seem to be an equivalent to Marvel Studios’ Kevin Feige. Now that you’ve made Aquaman, do you see yourself being more involved with writing, producing or spearheading the next wave of DC movies?
You know, I try not to think that far. I try to just look at one movie and take it one step at a time. Usually, what happens with me, it’s like if I am making a horror movie for a while, I get horrored out. If I make a superhero movie—which, this superhero movie took three years of my life—I’m superheroed out. [Laughs] I’m always trying to find a bit of diversity in my work and to find something new and different to try out. I hate being pigeonholed as a certain kind of filmmaker. I’m always trying to find new things to challenge me. I’m not quite sure what my next movie, as director, will be. This is what I’ll say. I came in when they were gearing up to do Justice League, and the great thing about the story I wanted to tell is that my movie doesn’t cross with what they were doing in Justice League, right? That was so liberating for me because the story I wanted to tell takes my character on a different path that isn’t beholden to other movies and vice versa. The other movies aren’t beholden to what we’re doing because we’re going on such a different journey, and I think that was the smartest thing to do.

You seem to be on a similar trajectory as Sam Raimi. You both started out with horror. He eventually did an action/Western like The Quick and the Dead. You branched out and did Furious 7. He went on to do the Spider-Man movies. You did Aquaman. He uses the yellow Delta 88 car from the Evil Dead movies as an Easter egg in his movies, like how you just used the Annabelle doll as an Easter egg in Aquaman. He uses Bruce Campbell frequently, kind of like how you use Patrick Wilson regularly. I think you get the point. [Laughs] But like what you were just saying, he seemed to shed the horror skin fairly early on to avoid being pigeonholed. He ultimately started producing horror and not directing it as much, even though he made Drag Me to Hell as a love letter to the genre. Do you see yourself on that path? Will horror be placed in the background for a while or maybe severed altogether?
It’s funny that you connected me to Sam. Sam is a big idol of mine. I really look up to him, and I do look up to his career path in a lot of ways. I kind of see myself sort of falling in Raimi’s path and using him as a template somewhat. Sam’s horror films always had a lot of comedy in them. He was never outright a horror, horror director. His stuff was always more horror-comedy. Obviously, I love the horror genre. It’s where I got my start. It’s what I love. I don’t think I’ll ever turn my back on it. I’m very thankful for the horror genre and the horror fans. The horror fans are the best. They’re so loyal. Horror fans are the nicest people, and I’m not leaving the horror genre, and I would love to go back and do something else with the right project.

You’ve been quite busy as a producer and have your name attached to a lot of projects. You directed the first two Conjuring movies, and you’re producing the third one. Can you give us a tease there?
We are going to start The Conjuring 3 next year with Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson. Even though I’m not the director on that film, that’s my baby, and that’s something I’ll keep a vigilant eye on. I’m thinking of maybe taking a break from directing for a little bit and focusing more on producing. It’s really hard while I’m producing movies, and I’m also directing such a big film like Aquaman. It makes it really hard, and I feel like I get pulled in so different directions. So I kind of like the idea of maybe just focusing on one, and focusing on producing for the time being.

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