Aquaman: King of Atlantis, HBO Max’s new animated miniseries from executive producer James Wan’s Atomic Monster Productions, knows that no matter how sexy or cool Warner Bros. tries to make DC’s signature amphibious hero, he’s always going to be the butt of at least a few jokes.
Funny as we may think butts are, they’re a core part of how we stabilise and ground ourselves, similar to how Aquaman’s a sometimes silly, but important component of the Justice League. King of Atlantis — from Victor Courtright (ThunderCats Roar) and Marly Halpern-Graser (Batman vs. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles) — fits right into DC and Warner Bros.’ larger project of revitalizing Aquaman’s image, but it does so without losing sight of the fact that fans have been poking fun at Arthur Curry for decades — not because people dislike the character, but because they love him.
Though Aquaman: King of Atlantis is firmly set in a continuity separate from the DCEU, it takes more than a few leads from Wan’s 2018 live-action feature that followed Jason Momoa’s Aquaman as he took his first steps towards becoming Atlantis’ latest ruler. Like his live-action counterpart, King of Atlantis’ take on Arthur Curry (voiced by Shazam’s Cooper Andrews) is a man caught between two worlds and unsure of how to fit into either as he embraces his Atlantean birthright and his new status as a famous superhero. In moments where Aquaman’s physical strength isn’t quite enough to compensate for his uncertainty, warrior princess Mera (Gillian Jacobs) is always ready to back him up with a lovingly-shouted pep talk — when she isn’t busy brawling with deep-sea goons. Compared to her cinematic and comics counterparts, this Mera’s an explosive force of unbridled excitement which tends to get the best of her, and is what makes Vulko (Thomas Lennon) the necessary third member of the series’ trio of heroes. Left to their own devices, Aquaman, Mera, and Vulko wouldn’t be able to give Atlantis’ people what they need from leaders during a precarious time in their nation’s history, but together, they set out to usher in a new era of peace and harmony.
While some of King of Atlantis’ more absurd elements give the show an amped-up Spongebob Squarepants quality in its more action-oriented moments, its story about Aquaman’s struggles with anxiety and self-doubt is poignant and gives him an endearing, emotional vulnerability that contrasts with his boisterousness elsewhere. This Aquaman’s the definition of a manly man, but he’s also a big softie with easily exposed, tender feelings, and the show knows that’s part of what makes him strong. But the show also knows that it’d be silly to pass up the opportunity to poke fun at a yoked superhero who leaves his house every day dressed like a curious fish stick dipped in an unidentifiable, green sauce.
Divisive as Aquaman: King of Atlantis’ art style might be, it’s absolutely beautiful and teeming with imagination as it builds out a vision of the mostly unseen world hidden beneath the Earth’s ocean where anthropomorphic fish people go about their everyday lives. Because the series shares so much of its narrative DNA with the DCEU, it feels both like a deepening of the character’s status as a knowing joke vehicle and a throwback to the days when Aquaman was just some goofball in a loud, scaly suit. Compared to something like Marvel’s recent What If series on Disney+, which similarly tosses familiar-ish takes on established characters into the deep end of other universes, King of Atlantis feels freer to have its own identity and less obsessed with hewing to canon.
Also like What If, Aquaman: King of Atlantis feels aimed at a younger audience more often than not. But where the Marvel series has a curious way of feeling somewhat at odds and out of sync with its live-action siblings, King of Atlantis comes across as being much more aware of where it’s meant to exist. King of Atlantis never gets quite as meta as Teens Titan GO, or get as kid-y as grimdark as Young Justice, but the series sits comfortably between series like that, tonally, all the while never wandering into the R-rated realm that’s common in many other Warner Bros. Animation projects.
Warner Bros. Animation has a long track record of producing near-Elseworlds journeys off the beaten path that are able to translate parts of comics to the screen that simply wouldn’t be possible with live-action, and Aquaman: King of Atlantis makes clear that the studio hasn’t lost its edge as its begun to populate HBO Max with new shows.
Aquaman: King of Atlantis hits HBO Max on October 14.