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How Jason Momoa and James Wan made a different kind of superhero movie with ‘Aquaman’

James Wan, second from left, directs a scene in "Aquaman" with, from left, Amber Heard, Jason Momoa and Willem Dafoe. (Warner Bros./DC Entertainment)
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Jason Momoa never doubted he had what it took to be a superhero. He certainly had the résumé for it.

This is the guy who played Khal Drogo in HBO’s “Game of Thrones” and had the triceps necessary to convince Hollywood it needed another Conan the Barbarian movie. Rumors of Momoa’s eventual arrival into Warner Bros.' live-action, DC Comics-inspired movie universe initially had him tapped to play Doomsday, the CGI-heavy, muscled monster that killed Superman in “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.”

But Aquaman? Even Momoa says he initially needed convincing from Zack Snyder, the director who would eventually cast him in the role, that he was the right person to play DC’s king of the seas.

“I was just a little bit shocked, because I felt like I wasn’t quite wrapping my head around why he had chosen me,” Momoa said.

Momoa says Snyder, who at the time was assembling a roster for what would become 2017′s polarizing “Justice League,” was looking for a hero with an edge — someone who could question the authority of DC icons such as Wonder Woman, Superman and Batman, and realistically punch anyone’s lights out. That, Momoa could do in his sleep.

Snyder had envisioned the hero descending from the mystical underwater world of Atlantis on his mother’s side — just like in the comics — but added a cultural twist: the character’s human father would be of Polynesian descent. Momoa, born in Hawaii to a Native Hawaiian father and a white mother who would eventually raise him in Iowa, suddenly saw a lot more of himself in a character who has been historically white and blond.

It isn’t lost on Momoa that an actor of his background starring as a leading superhero is groundbreaking.

“In 2019 there’s not a lot of brown, [biracial] superheroes. When I grew up, it would have been freakin' rad if Batman was this color,” Momoa said. “I’ve been talking to people from Colombia, Argentina, Mexico to Malaysia and Singapore . . . like so many beautiful, diverse places . . . [they] are so excited. A lot of us are very connected to the water and have our own folklore and our own mythology based around the supernatural powers and gods out of water. So it really is cool to be the first to do that [with “Aquaman”] and set that tone.”

“Aquaman” is Warner Bros. and DC Entertainment’s attempt to replicate the magic of their last solo superhero effort, 2017’s “Wonder Woman,” which was a critical and box office success. It is likely WB/DC also hope the film will drown out the negative press that surrounded “Justice League,” a movie that failed to capitalize on “Wonder Woman’s” buzzy momentum.

‘Aquaman’ is one of DC’s best superhero films

“Aquaman” arrives in a year where superheroes of color on the big screen guided by directors of color behind the camera are now big business. Much like Marvel Studios’ billion-dollar hit and Golden Globe-nominated “Black Panther,” directed by Ryan Coogler and starring Chadwick Boseman, “Aquaman” features a director of color — the Malaysian-born Australian James Wan — directing an actor of color.

“James brought his vision. He's the captain of the ship,” Momoa said. “He embraced what had already been built [with Snyder] and then put his fingerprint on it.”

Wan said knowing Momoa was already attached as his star made preproduction planning that much easier.

“I could write scenes with [Aquaman] knowing exactly how the character would speak,” Wan said. “My writers and I would come up with stuff and it was easy for us because we would go, ‘Oh, you know what, Jason wouldn’t say it like that, he’d say it more like this,’ or he’d do things more like this way, and it actually made the process much easier.”

Wan was recruited to direct “Aquaman” by former DC Entertainment president Geoff Johns, who has a writing and executive producer credit on the film. Johns was an admitted fan of Wan’s work directing in both horror (“Saw” and “The Conjuring”) and action films (“Furious 7”).

With piranha-headed creatures from the darkest depths of the sea and the film calling for Momoa to toss around pirates like toys while shirtless and lift submarines over his head, Johns was convinced that the genre-mixing Wan would be the perfect fit to helm the project.

Johns’s creative comic book DNA is all over “Aquaman”; much of the film takes inspiration from his time writing for DC Comics. The movie seems like Johns’s pages come to life with its appearances from fellow royalty and love-interest Mera (Amber Heard); the classic, vengeance-seeking and popular villain, Black Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II); and Aquaman's half brother, Orm/Ocean Master (Patrick Wilson), who sits on the Atlantean throne and sees his half-human hero brother as a threat.

Wan spent countless hours reading Johns’s Aquaman run — specifically the issues published during the “New 52” era that began in 2011 — and says the two worked “very closely” in shaping the film’s story.

“The story I wanted to tell was a quest story,” Wan said. “New audiences might not be familiar with [Aquaman’s story]. I wanted something simple so that I could have all these really interesting characters and come up with really striking visuals and set pieces, and I needed to start off with a narrative that people could very easily latch onto.”

“Aquaman’s” narrative, one of secret heritage and royalty surrounding an underwater throne, is brought together by the protagonist’s quest for a trident that will make him the undisputed king of all things aquatic.

“The idea [is] that [Aquaman] is searching for his mythical Excalibur,” Wan says of Aquaman (whose real name, coincidentally, is Arthur, just like the original Excalibur wielder, King Arthur). “There’s a lot of superhero movies out there in the cinematic landscape and I feel like I have to do something that is different. . . . That’s why I shaped it more into an action-adventure fantasy film instead. That was Step 1 for me. And then Step 2 was about creating visuals and images that you haven’t quite seen before and ultimately being faithful to the comic book as well.”

Momoa appreciated Wan’s storytelling approach and the way the film took its time getting to the royal and super aspects of the Aquaman mythos. Part of that pace involved the lead spending most of the movie in civilian clothes, and not in the character’s famous bright orange and green royal Atlantean armor. And while the suit eventually made its debut in the film’s trailers — there is a fan base to appease after all — Momoa was happy to see Aquaman earn the right to wear the uniform.

"I’m not interested in making him king just yet,” Momoa said. “I [wanted] to see his journey. [But] I love being able to [wear the suit] for the fans.”

Momoa, who says he’s now comfortable on his fictional sea-throne, is ready for another deep dive if “Aquaman” proves itself at the box office.

“Listen, I would love to play him again, and contractually I am obligated to make another one,” Momoa said. “If the fans love it and the audiences love it, then hell yeah, I’d love to make another one.”

Considering “Aquaman” has yet to open domestically but has already made more than $266 million overseas, it’s safe to say that the new film will make a commercial splash.

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