Nearly 80 years after his comic book debut, the seafaring superhero Aquaman finally swam into the spotlight last weekend with the release of James Wan’s “Aquaman.” While the latest (and beefiest) version, played by Jason Momoa, has appeared in big-budget movies before, “Aquaman” is the first live-action feature in which he is the headliner.
Why the longstanding neglect? For much of his life, Aquaman was relegated to second-tier status — underwhelming on land, great as a punch line to many fabulous memes. Nevertheless, the character has appeared regularly in print since his debut in the pages of “More Fun Comics” #73 in 1941, as well as multiple animated and live-action TV series and films. Here are a few of Aquaman’s notable onscreen incarnations (Momoa’s could beat up all of them):
‘The Superman/Aquaman Hour of Adventure’ (1967-1968)
“The Superman/Aquaman Hour of Adventure” debuted in 1967 and aired for one season on CBS. Produced by Filmation, this Saturday morning cartoon paired Superman segments with Aquaman segments, with appearances by heroes like the Flash, Green Lantern and the Teen Titans. It had a campy tone that haunted Aquaman’s image for years: Aquaman and his teenage sidekick, Aqualad, ride around on seahorses named Storm and Imp, facing off against supervillains, pirates and sea monsters. Frequently, Aquaman finds himself in peril and has to use his telepathic powers to call on turtles, jellyfish, sharks and other sea creatures to save him. He also has a pet walrus named Tusky. In keeping with the live action “Batman” of the time, its dialogue was ridiculous, its production cheap. But while Batman went on to star in films and TV series that let him shed his ’60s reputation, Aquaman was not so fortunate.
‘Super Friends’ (1973-1986)
“Super Friends,” also known as “Challenge of the Super Friends” and “The All-New Super Friends Hour,” did nothing to reinvent the Aquaman character. Instead, it doubled down on the outlandishness. Episodes depict him riding on flying fish, getting trapped by a sea anemone and needing to be rescued by octopuses, riding a gaudy jet ski emblazoned with the letter A and generally only being useful when near a body of water. Granted, none of the heroes featured in “Super Friends” really come out looking all that great, but Aquaman suffered the most. His star power was already lower than that of Batman, Wonder Woman and Superman, and the relentless cheesiness of the show did him no favors.
In the second and third seasons of HBO’s “Entourage,” the show’s main character, Vincent Chase (Adrian Grenier), earns a role as Aquaman in a film directed by James Cameron. The show treats the idea of an Aquaman film as a season-long gag, but when the film opens, it earns $116,844,144 in its first weekend. (In 2006, that would have been the highest grossing opening weekend ever). The series had a lot of fun at Aquaman’s expense (the brief footage that we do see of the film looks cheap and terrible), and the idea of an Aquaman movie did seem ridiculous at the time. Still, just two years later, Marvel started its cinematic universe, making room for the possibility that lesser-known superheroes like Ant-Man and the Guardians of the Galaxy could be successful, too.
Aquaman made his live-action TV debut on “Smallville” in 2005. Portrayed by Alan Ritchson (who has since played another DC superhero on the DC Universe series “Titans”), this incarnation of Aquaman goes by the name “A.C.” and is a marine biology student who has a brief flirtation with Lois Lane (Erica Durance) after saving her from drowning. Perhaps suggesting a latent hunger for Aquaman, his debut episode was the most watched of that season. The “Smallville” version of the character borrowed the animated version’s ability to create concussive balls of water (which is not one of his traits in the comics) and wore his trademark orange and green colors, but only because he was a student at the University of Miami. Aquaman returned to make appearances throughout the series.
‘Aquaman’ (Pilot) (2006)
After Aquaman’s debut on “Smallville,” a pilot was greenlit starring Justin Hartley (“This Is Us”). Rather than spin off “Smallville,” however, the show presented another version of Aquaman: This time, he’s a young man who runs a dive shop and discovers he’s the prince of Atlantis. Lou Diamond Phillips and Ving Rhames also have roles. The show’s creator, Alfred Gough, said that the series would feature Aquaman facing off against various environmental threats, but ultimately, “Aquaman” was not picked up. The pilot episode was eventually released on iTunes, and it is readily available for those who want to experience the rough C.G.I., hokey dialogue, and mid-2000s bleached hairstyles.
‘Batman: The Brave and the Bold’ (2008-2011)
DC refocused its efforts on animated programming in the ’90s with the debut of “Batman: The Animated Series,” and more animated series and films followed in its wake. Aquaman appeared in “Superman: The Animated Series,” “Justice League” and numerous direct-to-video animated films, but one of the best incarnations was on “Batman: The Brave and the Bold,” which aired from 2008 to 2011. This version (voiced by John DiMaggio) offered a boisterous, self-aware take on the character that leaned into his more outlandish characteristics. (He is introduced riding two dolphins like skis). Openly acknowledging that Aquaman is kind of goofy provided one of the most fun versions of the character up to that time, and in a bit of meta commentary, the show later proclaimed him its breakout character.
‘Batman v. Superman’ and Beyond (2016-Present)
In 2014, after the box office success of “Man of Steel,” an Aquaman film was put into production. Jason Momoa of “Game of Thrones” was cast that same year and made his first appearance in the role as a small cameo in “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice,” followed by a larger role in “Justice League.” In this version, Aquaman has been turned into a laid-back surfer type rather than the uptight square from “Super Friends.” And unlike previous blond-haired and blue-eyed incarnations, Momoa’s is of mixed race descent, adding some welcome diversity to the superhero landscape. Early box-office returns have been huge. It seems as if, after decades as a punch line, maybe the world is finally ready to embrace Aquaman in all of his orange-and-green suited glory.