The last two story structure analysis posts concerned movies from the Marvel universe. Today, I want to switch back to DC. You can find the last one I did in the DC-verse here: Wonder Woman
I need to admit that I was positively surprised by the whole movie. That’s not just because Jason Momoa in action is nice to look at. The story structure is solid, the character development is well done and they did a good job with the visuals, too (no, not just the body-hugging Altantian-clothes.)
And the mandatory SPOILER ALERT!
Please don’t read on if you haven’t seen the movie yet and want to keep the suspense intact. As I usually do, I use KM Weiland’s story structure to identify the rising action and the main story points.
Story Structure – Overview:
Hook: Arthur Curry’s parents meet
Inciting Event: (pre-movie) Arthur’s half-brother King Orm decides on a war against the surface
Key Event: Orm’s flash floods almost kill Arthur’s father
First Plot Point: Arthur agrees to help to stop the war
First Pinch: Orm beats Arthur at the Ring Of Fire challenge
Midpoint: Arthur and Mera retrieve directions to the trident from the Kingdom of the Deserters
Second Pinch: Orm’s killer squad attacks in Sicily
Third Plot Point: Arthur wins King Atlan’s trident
Climax: Arthur enters the great battle at the border of the Kingdom of the Brine
Climactic Moment: Arthur refuses to kill Orm
Resolution: Arthur is declared king and his parents meet again
Detailed Analysis of the story structure and the rising action
The movie starts out with a series of scenes setting up Arthur Curry aka Aquaman’s history, starting from how his parents meet up to the point his mother decides to leave again to protect him. We get some glimpses from Arthur’s childhood, most notably the one in the Boston Aquarium where his ability to ‘talk’ to fish is introduced for the first time (Foreshadowing).
It’s a bit tricky to identify the Inciting Event here. One could argue that Arthur’s parents’ chance meeting (and his subsequent conception) could be a viable candidate because without that none of the movie’s events would have taken place. But since the movie’s main conflict is about the Atlantean forces threatening war on the surface (we’d be so screwed) the Inciting Event needs to be a moment that set this specific conflict in motion. Arthur’s mother Atlanna’s conviction for treason and her subsequent death in the trench comes to mind. That, at least, is the reason Orm hates the surface. But his deep dislike and suspicion of the surface dwellers don’t necessarily mean he’s bound to wage war on them. So only when he decides to do so and starts to pursue a war against the surface, does he start the chain of events that will lead to Arthur’s involvement in this conflict.
Orm’s plan (as becomes clear only in later scenes) is to force the other underwater kings to join him in the fight and declare him Ocean Master. To achieve this, he plans to stage an attack, seemingly carried out by the surface. This requires a submarine. The acquisition of said vessel is when Arthur gets in touch with his brother’s devious plan for the first time. He intervenes when Orm’s mercenaries, pirate Manta & his cronies, are about to take over a Russian submarine. He doesn’t know he’s interfering with his half brother’s plans.
Arthur rescues the submarine’s crew members (those still alive) but leaves Manta and his (incapacitated father), telling them to “ask the sea for mercy.” Manta’s father is killed and Manta himself is bound on seeking revenge. The submarine sinks but is later used for the intended purpose: an attack, seemingly by surface dwellers, on King Orm and King Nereus. Orm’s plan works; Nereus agrees to fight on his side.
But Arthur just brushed the conflict by his interference in the submarine. He is not yet personally involved. This changes when Mera seeks him out, asking his help. Classic “call to adventure.” Also classic: He (politely) declines. The Key Event hits, when Orm’s “retaliation flash flood” hits the coasts and he and his father get caught in it. Now, he’s personally affected. And offended. The guys who killed his mom now threatened his Dad, his only family left, as well. It’s not uncommon for the First Plot Point to follows right on the heels of the Key Event. When Mera helps to rescue his Dad and renews her plea, pointing out the dangers once more, Arthur can’t ignore her any longer. He agrees to take action, at last, entering Atlantis for the first time with her help. There, he meets Vulko again, his former Atlantean teacher/mentor. Vulko & Mera lay out their plan: “win the hearts of the people by proving to be worthy. Prove to be worthy by retrieving King Atlan’s lost trident, the legendary Trident of Neptun (*1), then challenge and dethrone Orm.
Quite the plan but bam! all goes awry when Orm’s soldiers capture Arthur right there the next scene. Orm baits Arthur into challenging him for the throne right then. They battle in front of a huge crowd and it goes increasingly bad for Arthur. We arrive at the First Pinch Point when Orm smashes Arthur’s trident. Luckily, Mera shows up. Arthur flees with her and they (barely) escape. Notable here is how they do that: They hide in a whale’s gullet after Arthur tells the beast to help them. This is the second time his ability to talk to fish (or let’s say sea creatures since a whale is technically a mammal) crops up and saves the day.
With the last sequence of scenes being action and tension heavy, it’s now time for a breather. The pace slows a little and we get some much needed comic relief. Arthur and Mera go back to their and Vulko’s original plan: retrieve the legendary Trident of Neptune, the key to the heart of Atlantis. For a change, things go well. They make it to the lost Kingdom of the Deserters, survive the fall/slide through the sand dune and the first room they walk in is the hall they were looking for. The artefact fits the hologram-machine-thingy and, with some coaxing, it even works. Neat. Here, at the Midpoint, Arthur and They Mera acquire, if not the trident, the next clue. They walk away unchallenged with a glass bottle and a map, showing where to go next.
They make their way to Sicily and, amidst some slightly cheesy exploration of the romantic subplot, find the place where to look for the next clue, and get the next location. Of course, it would be far to easy to just go on now, so the Second Pinch Point comes up, just in time to display King Orm’s extensive reach and his willingness to win this conflict by all available means. His forces arrive in the form of a killer squad headed by Manta. There are other scenes along the way that display Orm’s ruthlessness, e.g. when he kills the Fishermen Kingdom’s king and threatens its heir into joining him. But the attack on Sicily fits the characteristics of a pinch point better. For one, it’s a direct confrontation where both Mera and Arthur actively defend their lives. But also, because it involves Manta again, picking up a subplot from the first act. His enmity and brutality are hardly surprising.
Arthur and Mera battle their way out of this tight situation. However, it’s a narrow win and Arthur is hurt in the process. Of course, it’s nothing serious. By the time he comes to, he’s all but restored by the wondrous aid of some seaweed Mera applied to his cuts and stab wounds.
Arthur and Mera are en route to the next location. Alas, it’s in the Kingdom the Trench, the very place Arthur’s mother Atlanna was sacrificed for her treason twenty-odd years ago! But there’s no help for it, so down they go. Attacked and followed by an impressive swarm of Trench-creatures, they make it to the thunderbolt-lighted whirlwind/hurricane portal that looks like an underwater version of the Star War’s Maelstrom in-and-out of Kessel. Both Mera and Arthur are sure to be ripped apart inside but of course they go in anyway. And end up at The Hidden Sea where prehistoric beasts roam an undiscovered Jule-Verne-like Earth’s core complete with ginormous diamond crystals. In a not-so-surprising twist, Atlanna is here, too. She’s a bit worn and scrubby after her solitary confinement to the place for such a long time, but alive and well. (Such a sweet moment when they meet as adults for the first time.)
The only way out is to retrieve the trident from the late King Atlan’s grasp. Only snag: The Karathen, another mythical creature come alive, guards it. A nice touch at this point in the movie is Arthur’s inner growth in this and the next scenes. Much of his anger and resentment rested on the loss of his mother and the cruelty of the Atlantean sentence. (*2) To him, it equalled punishing his mere existence and he partly blamed himself for Atlanna’s death. Now she’s here and urges him on. He’s not fighting for is own inner lust for revenge anymore but to protect the people from Orm’s war.
So in he goes. He battles the Karathen and gets his ass whipped until, finally, the third instance (*3) of the heavily foreshadowed “talk to sea creatures” ability does the trick in a classic “the power is in you!-moment” that would make Dan Wells quite happy. (*4)
Karathen, sufficiently impressed by Arthurs words, calms down. Arthur claims the Trident of Neptune at last in a satisfying Third Plot Point.
Now everything moves on fast. Orm exposes Vulko and has him arrested. He then sounds the charge on the Kingdom of the Brine, the last one to bow the knee and make him Ocean Master. Thankfully, Karathen gives Arthur and his two ladies a ride home from the core. They engage in the conflict at the Brine’s border. Arthur wields the power of Atlantis via the trident, all the creatures come to fight for him. We get the climax of the romantic subplot now, too, complete with “fireworks.” (Dan Wells reference again, check out his 7 Point Structure talk!) Next, Mera’s father backs down and the Fishermen’s teenager-queen follows suit. She wasn’t all that eager to fight anyway.
So now it comes down to the Climax: the fight between Arthur and his little brother, warmonger Orm. This time, Arthur forces Orm to fight on land (thanks for the suggestion, Mera). Here, Arthur’s got the advantage and he uses it. The brothers battle. Arthur does well, his brand-new (or ancient – depending on how you want to see it) trident shatters Orm’s weapon. That, however, isn’t yet the climactic moment. That would be when Arthur refuses to kill Orm, distancing himself from the brutality and mercilessness of Atlantean habits. He’s better than this; he’s learned differently from his parents.
Now the resolution’s scenes begin. Atlanna calms down Orm. Vulko comes up, free and reinstated as vizier. Arthur is declared King. And last but not least, we circle back to the beginning and the relationship of Arthur’s parents. Tom Curry reunites with Atlanna. Perfect HEA. (I’m not crying; you are crying!)
This is where the movie officially ends. BUT…
Fast forward to the after credit scene. Surprise! Manta isn’t dead. And to top it off, he’s fished from a plank in the middle of the sea by the crazy, Atlantis-obsessed Dr Stephen Shin, the guy who’s been all over Breakfast-TV with his (not so wrong) speculations about Atlanteans. Patched up and on the mend, Manta vows to go after Aquaman once more, setting up the Aquaman 2 movie with the continued conflict between both men.
(*1) I’ve read some pieces where King Atlan’s trident is called a classic MacGuffin/McGuffin. It’s not!
By definition, a MacGuffin is usually established in the 1st act as a motivator for the main character(s) and has its importance decline from then on. It is often not narratively explained nor serves a deeper purpose in the plot.
None of that is the case for the trident. The trident and its pursuit don’t come up until after the First Plot Point. Then, the trident’s history is explained at length and so is the reason for Arthur’s pursuit of it. It’s not a mere plot device for motivation either because by then, Arthur has already made up his mind to go against Orm. Later, the trident serves a significant purpose in the plot.
Therefore: NOT a MacGuffin at all.
(*2) Arthur isn’t the only one who’s inner conflict is based on Atlanna’s untimely demise. For both sides, protagonist & antagonist, her sentence and subsequent death in the Trench is the reason to resent the other. Both their inner motivation is to revenge her and that’s a nice touch. Of course, both act from opposite sides of the conflict. While Orm wants to wage war on the surface as a punishment for luring his glorified mother into treasonous acts, Arthur seeks revenge for the brutality of the sentence she received for loving his father (and giving birth to him). To Arthur, the conviction of his mother passes judgement upon himself and his existence.
(*3) The rule of (the) three, often used in storytelling (literature and film) states that a device/fact/action/motivation is employed three times for maximum impact and satisfaction of the audience. Read up about it here.
(*4) Dan Wells‘s a well-known author and podcaster with Writing Excuses. Check out his talk(s) about the 7 Points Story Structure to know what I’m referring to here. I recommend it for everyone interested in story structure. It’s brilliant. You can find a good summary of the corresponding Youtube clips on Karen Woodward’s blog. If you watch all of the five clips, you’ll see where the “The power is in you!” and “Fireworks!” references come from.
That’s it. I hope you enjoyed this post. Anything to add? Write to me in the comments.