For years, Aquaman was a joke. Just because this character was innately silly and had superpowers that didn’t revolve around killing people, Aquaman became a go-to source for mockery. TV programs like The Big Bang Theory and Family Guy especially were relentless in their withering skewering of this classic superhero, a microcosm of the endlessly witty writing that permeated both shows. However, this ruler of the underwater kingdom had the last laugh in December 2018 when the character finally got a solo live-action movie. After years of Aquaman jokes and problems for the DC Extended Universe (save for the success of 2017’s Wonder Woman), Aquaman became a massive box-office success. In fact, this James Wan directorial effort turned into the biggest DC Comics adaptation in history at the worldwide box office.
Suddenly, Aquaman was a pop culture icon and people all over the world were enamored with his mythos. Shockingly, it appeared that Sheldon Cooper and Peter Griffin might’ve been off on this one…maybe Aquaman didn’t suck! However, even if the Aquaman mockery was always overblown, there was no denying that, for years, Warner Bros. and its various divisions struggled to figure out what to do with Aquaman in media outside of comics. This character’s intrinsically maximalist sensibilities just didn’t seem to fit with the default approach to live-action DC properties in the past. The difficulties of translating Aquaman to live-action mediums of storytelling were encapsulated in a proposed TV show focusing on this aquatic superhero from the Smallville creators that never got past the pilot stage.
Wait, There Was Almost an Aquaman TV Show?
In a 2005 installment of the original Smallville TV show, Alan Ritchson made a guest appearance as Arthur, a grounded yet recognizable version of Aquaman. The character proved quite popular on Smallville and would make three subsequent appearances on the program before it wrapped up in May 2011. However, fresh off that inaugural Arthur showcase, brass at Smallville network The WB began to get excited over the idea of adding another DC adaptation to its schedule. The plan now was to give Aquaman his own spin-off program. After years of being seen as too ridiculous for mainstream acceptance, Aquaman was about to step into the spotlight.
Frustratingly, though, the basic concept of the show was to strip away many of the elements that make Aquaman who he is. This was partially out of the budgetary constraints of making a show on The WB/The CW, but it was mostly due to the default “grounded” approach to superheroes in 2000s media. In a Variety article announcing the program’s existence, producer Al Gough (a veteran of Smallville) confirmed that the show would never use the word “Aquaman” and the character’s superpower of talking to fish would never be seen. Even more puzzling was the decision to ditch Ritchson from the production entirely despite how well-received he’d been in inhabiting the Arthur Curry role on Smallville. The team behind this Aquaman show wanted to deliver an entirely new vision of this character, which meant finding a new leading man to portray the wet superhero.
Eventually, Justin Hartley was set to play Aquaman, while Lou Diamond Phillips would be portraying this character’s dad. Other actors appearing in this pilot included Denise Quinones, Adrianne Palicki, and the one and only Ving Rhames, the latter figure playing the mentor figure to Arthur Curry. The basic plot of the pilot episode established that this show would depict Aquaman in training, a young man the world needs to fight off unthinkable underwater evils. Arthur Curry is also depicted as the “right kind” of troublemaker (he gets in trouble with the law…for unleashing dolphins from a marine park prison!) and fixated on figuring out the truth behind his mom, who was taken from him years ago.
The Aquaman pilot swam quickly through production, with this episode shooting in Miami, Florida in March 2006, just four months after the show was first announced. Given all the hype surrounding its sister show Smallville, the ambitions behind Aquaman were grand and the hope was that it would be an easy series pick-up for The CW. After all, if one DC Comics superhero show had proven so successful for the network, surely a second one would be greeted with open arms. However, in May 2006, The CW announced its slate of shows for Fall 2006 and Aquaman was nowhere to be seen. The only comment about its future came from then-President of Entertainment for the network Dawn Ostroff, who noted that Aquaman had the potential to launch during the mid-season. As weeks passed and no orders were announced for further episodes, though, it became clear that Aquaman was dead in the water.
Why Didn’t ‘Aquaman’ Go Forward?
Years after this pilot was shot, co-creator Miles Millar revealed to IGN that a key reason for Aquaman‘s demise was network politics. At the time of the pilot’s launch, Smallville‘s original home of The WB was transforming into The CW. Network executives that had once championed Arthur Curry getting a solo program were now gone. In their place was a new regime that had zero interest in superhero shows. This shift in priorities led to Aquaman getting the boot despite seeming like such a perfect companion piece to the hit program Smallville. A new age was dawning for this network and that fresh approach didn’t have room for the king of the sea.
Meanwhile, outlets like Den of Geek have speculated that budgetary concerns also doomed the show. It was never going to be cheap to even realize a watered-down (no pun intended) vision of Aquaman and his mythos. The CW almost certainly took one look at the potential costs of this program and found it ill-suited for one of the smaller broadcast networks. On top of everything else, the general perception of Aquaman as a punchline didn’t do the potential show any favors. When it came to launching Smallville, marketing could ride on how beloved Superman was by people all over the world. Promoting Aquaman would mean confronting all kinds of mocking jokes and other problems.
Two years after the pilot’s death, another live-action version of Aquaman, this time portrayed by Santiago Cabrera, would also bite the dust once George Miller‘s superhero blockbuster Justice League: Mortal was canned. After these two high-profile properties went nowhere, any future live-action version of Aquaman (in film or television) remained on the back burner. Even the expansive ArrowVerse, which flipped The CW’s attitude on superhero shows upside down. Still, the story of this DC superhero does have a happy ending concerning all the money the 2018 movie Aquaman ended up accumulating. A character that was all wet when it came to CW programming circa. 2006 turned out to be a flood of entertainment for moviegoers circa. 2018.
The Big Picture
In the mid-2000s, TV viewers almost got to experience a low-budget realistic vision of Aquaman from the Smallville creators. Read More