The following article contains spoilers for Aquaman.
Aquaman is a massive box office hit credited for its spectacular visuals. There is much more, underneath the surface, however, in a story about what it means to be a hero. This includes moments in which Aquaman better handles a set of circumstances similar to a moment in Batman Begins that fans have debated for over a decade.
Early in the film, Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa) fights to stop a gang of pirates from stealing a submarine. The pirates are led by a father/son duo and when the conflict results in the father (Michael Beach) being trapped and doomed to drown, the son (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) begs Arthur for mercy, but Arthur declines. The father dies and as a result, Black Manta is born.
Arthur Curry’s refusal to save the Black Manta’s father is reminiscent of a key moment in the third act of Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins. The antagonist, Ra’s al Ghul (Liam Neeson) has a microwave emitter aboard a monorail train headed for Wayne Tower, the central hub of Gotham City’s water supply. If the emitter reaches Wayne Tower, the city’s entire water supply will be vaporized, releasing a fear toxin that will make the citizens of Gotham tear each other apart.
Batman (Christian Bale) battles Ra’s aboard the train. During their fight, Ra’s intentionally damages the controls of the train so that it cannot be stopped. Unbeknownst to Ra’s, Batman has given Jim Gordon the Batmobile, which Gordon uses to blow up part of the elevated track so that the train cannot reach Wayne Tower even if Batman fails. The train is going to crash.
Once Batman overpowers Ra’s, his mentor-turned-nemesis effectively asks if Batman is going to kill him. “I won’t kill you,” Batman replies, “but I don’t have to save you.” Batman escapes the train and leaves Ra’s to die as it flies off the damaged track, crashes, and explodes.
Fans have been debating that moment ever since. Would Batman really make that decision? Should he?
Batman did not murder Ra’s al Ghul. Batman’s intention was to stop the train. Having the train fly off of a blown-up track was Batman’s backup plan. It was Ra’s who rendered the train impossible to stop. If Ra’s had not done that, he could have stopped the train himself when he saw that the track had been destroyed.
Batman and Aquaman do the same thing in their respective movies. They refuse to save violent criminals from dangerous situations that those criminals created for themselves. The decisions made by Batman and Aquaman are justifiable, but not very heroic. Superheroes, after all, save villains all the time. The difference between the two films, however, is that Arthur Curry acknowledges and learns from his questionable decision in Aquaman while Bruce Wayne never does in Batman Begins or its two sequels.
To be clear, Batman Begins is one of the greatest comic book films ever made. It is an all-time classic and influenced many films that came after it. The movie has been reasonably criticized, however, for Batman’s decision not to save Ra’s, thanks in large part to Bruce Wayne never really admitting any error in subsequent films. He’s confronted with the death of Ra’s in The Dark Knight Rises, but outside of other villains trying to kill everyone in Gotham, no one, including Batman, ever questions the ethics of his choice.
Aquaman handles Arthur Curry’s decision not to save an antagonist much more effectively. After surviving an attack by Black Manta, Arthur admits to Mera that he made a mistake and created an enemy. While we should not expect our heroes to be perfect and make the correct choice every time, it is great to see Arthur learning and growing from his choices so that he can be a better hero.
“[Arthur] needs to basically reflect and realize that he made a mistake,” director James Wan told Superhero News during the Aquaman press junket last month. Wan wasn’t comparing Aquaman to any other film. These comparisons to Batman Begins are my own.
“That’s what the whole movie’s ultimately about for his character,” Wan continued. “Later in the movie, someone says to him that a king only fights for his nation, but a hero fights for everyone. That’s the journey that Arthur realizes that if he’s to become a hero, he needs to do the right thing, even if the right thing may not be right for him at the time.”
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Justice League already established Arthur Curry being super. For writer David Leslie Johnson, that meant the origin story for Aquaman needed to be about Arthur learning what it takes to be a hero.
“When you start off with Aquaman in this movie, he’s walking the walk sort of, but his heart’s maybe not in it,” Johnson explained. “Emotionally, he’s unfinished. He’s not really any better than one of us.
“When he lets Black Manta’s dad die, you almost understand his decision. You’re just like ‘Well, screw these guys.’ Maybe any one of us could have made that decision, but in order to be the hero, he’s gotta be better than any one of us and that’s part of his origin so that when he comes out of the waterfall, he’s actually Aquaman with a capital ‘A’ and sort of fully realized as a hero.”
Jason Momoa does a terrific job of conveying all of this through his performance. For all the bravado he displays throughout the film, it is this rare moment of vulnerability for a superhero that is the highlight of Momoa’s portrayal.
None of this is to argue that Aquaman is a better overall movie than Batman Begins. It’s a little early to decide Aquaman’s place in the history of the genre. In a pair of similar moments for each film’s respective title character, Aquaman delivered something much more heroic.