“The Enemy Below” (season 1, episodes 6-7; originally aired December 3, 2001 and December 10, 2001)
How do you make Aquaman cool? It’s been a concern of DC Comics for the past 20 years, and the character has gone through more makeovers and “bold new directions” than just about any of DC’s Big Seven. Peter David’s long-haired, harpoon handed loner, Rick Veitch’s water-handed swashbuckler, and Kurt Busiek’s aquatic Conan/squid-faced wizard are just a few of Arthur’s different modern incarnations, each one trying to distance itself from the Aquaman’s Superfriends portrayal: largely ineffective except he can talk to fish.
Part of September’s DC Relaunch, Geoff Johns’ Aquaman #1 featured a title character with two hands, a classic costume, and a badass attitude. Refusing to be seen as a joke, Arthur leaves Atlantis behind to reestablish himself in the surface world, determined to change how the public views him. It’s a sharp contrast to the Aquaman of “The Enemy Below,” a militaristic monarch and family man that will do anything to protect his people. He’s a strong leader because he understands that problems can be solved through discourse rather than action, but also knows that action garners more immediate results. Justice League’s Aquaman (Scott Rummell) would rather flood the surface than beg for its approval, a Namor personality with Thor’s appearance, but his mild sense of diplomacy counters his aggressive behavior.
Continuing the mini-genre-movie trend of the first season, “The Enemy Below” takes the form of a royal drama. A righteous king and his duplicitous brother, military intrigue and public assassinations—it’s like a Shakespeare play set against the backdrop of spandex costumes and underwater skyscrapers. The episode has the same issues as its predecessors, the dialogue is conventional fantasy fare and the story drags in the middle, but it also introduces a new emotional, personal element: romance. Arthur and Mera (Kristin Bauer Van Straten) are the first couple of Justice League, paving the path for future couples like Hawkgirl/Green Lantern, Black Canary/Green Arrow, and Huntress/Question. Justice League takes off when it finishes world building and starts exploring the relationships between the heroes, and Arthur and Mera’s parenting woes are a move in that direction. There’s more drama in one line of Arthur worrying about the kind of future he’s making for Arthur, Jr. than in two minutes of punching and explosions. He might be the ruler of the seas, but he has the same fears as any real parent, maybe even the one that is watching the new episode Justice League with their kid on Monday night.
The episode starts with Aquaman painted as a villain. After he attacks a U.S. nuclear submarine, Aquaman says his first lines: “Good. Let it sink.” He has the long hair and beard of Peter David’s run in the ’90s, but the weird silver armor/bandage thing on his shoulder is traded out for a more regal uniform. The Atlantean military garb he wears in the opening scene gives him a strong, threatening physique, and the broad shoulders of Timm’s style distance the character from previous slimmer appearances. He looks like an Aquaman that would kick your ass, and kick ass he does. Like Namor, Aquaman has a hostile relationship with the surface world, and like Thor, he has a brother working behind the scenes to ruin him.
Unlike the earlier shows of the DCAU, the animation is much more consistent on Justice League. The water effects in the North Pole action sequence look great, and the Atlantis environment is fantastic but still retains an urban element in the architecture. Director Dick Sebast isn’t as strong of an action director as Butch Lukic, but he does great work with sprawling environments and creating a strong sense of location. He has an underwater kingdom to play with this episode, and his vision of Atlantis gives the impression of what an ancient city like Rome or Athens might look like with modern technology.
When Arthur leaves Atlantis to address the world conference, his brother Orm (Richard Green) hires Deadshot (Michael Rosenbaum) to kill him, giving him the opportunity to steal Arthur’s throne and family. As Aquaman recovers in a tank provided by Batman, the Justice League lures out his would-be assassin, meaning more Deadshot! Thanks to Suicide Squad and Secret Six, Floyd Lawton is one of the most ruthlessly amusing characters in DC’s stable, and his appearance this episode is just a prelude to his brilliance in Justice League Unlimited’s “Task Force X.” This episode is light on humor, but Deadshot provides some comic relief thanks to Rosenbaum, who channels the absent Flash through Floyd as he hits on Wonder Woman after being captured.
Aquaman’s major enemy in the Justice League is Green Lantern, but both men are similarly headstrong and honor bound. They’re fiercely loyal military men, but in John’s eyes, Aquaman is a terrorist attacking U.S. submarines and harvesting their plutonium. And he’s not wrong. There are international protocols the surface world has agreed on that Arthur is ignorant of, and his actions put the entire planet in jeopardy when Orm activates the Doomsday Nuclear Reactor. Want other countries to be nice to you, Atlantis? Don’t build a Doomsday Nuclear Reactor.
When Arthur returns to Atlantis, he discovers that Orm has turned the Atlantean army against him and is taken prisoner. What follows is the episode’s best scene, as Arthur completes his transformation into Peter David’s Aquaman. Yes, that means the harpoon hand. After capturing Arthur, Orm chains him to a huge rock over a pit of lava, hangs Arthur Jr. in his red swaddling blanket next to him, and then sends the stone careening into the magma below. Arthur is able to break his right hand free of one of the chains, but his left proves more difficult, so he brandishes the “A” on his belt and cuts his hand off. How awesome is it that Aquaman cuts his hand off on a children’s TV show? The creative team was prohibited from showing any blood, but Bruce Timm found a loophole to give the be-handing extra graphic punch: Arthur Jr.’s red blanket becomes his father’s blood-soaked bandage. Aquaman lost his hand in the comics, it was because a villain took away his ability to communicate with fish and stuck his hand in a pool of piranhas. In “The Enemy Below,” Arthur sacrifices his hand to save the life of his son, and it’s a much stronger story choice, showing how much Arthur is willing to give up to protect those he loves.
The episode ends with Aquaman and the Justice League stopping Orm and the Atlantean forces from melting the polar ice cap, as Batman shuts down the Doomsday Nuclear Reactor with the help of Green Lantern. Arthur and Orm settle their issues with hand-to-hand combat, and when Orm is left dangling above an icy canyon, he begs for his brother to save him. Remembering how he just cut his hand off because Orm tried to kill him and his infant son, Arthur rubs his victory in his brother’s face, picks up his trident, and lets Orm fall. Aquaman is vengeful and ruthless, but he acts out of dedication to his family and his nation; he’s not a punchline, but a force to be reckoned with. You might even say he’s cool.
- No Flash or Hawkgirl this week, but their powers wouldn’t work in an underwater environment. Flash would create huge whirlpools everywhere he went and Hawkgirl’s wings would be flat-out useless.
- There’s an odd shot with John, J’onn, and Diana where they’re silhouetted against an outer space backdrop. Did the animators forget to fill in the figures or is it just a bizarre director choice?
- Kristen Bauer Van Straten, a.k.a. Pam of True Blood fame, auditioned for Wonder Woman, and was given the role of Mera based on her Michelle Pfeiffer-sounding voice. She has a sultriness that works for the character, especially with her transparent costume.
- Aquaman: “You would have me crawl to them like some beggar?” Superman: “No. Stand before them like a king.”
- “Is it madness to sacrifice all for someone you love?”
- Green Lantern after watching Aquaman recreate the Free Willy movie poster: “I saw it, but I still don’t believe it.”