Q&A: Aquaman & Atlantis

Watching Aquaman recently, I was struck by the thought that tridents, the Atlantean weapon of choice, didn’t seem particularly suited to underwater combat. What kind of weapons are, and does it change if the participants don’t have to worry about drowning?

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It’s not the weapon of choice. They’re using a mix of plasma rifles, and some kind of energy enhanced melee weapons, specifically swords and gauntlets. Those are pretty reasonable weapon choices. The tridents are ceremonial. So that’s not that weird, once you get past the idea of a civilization that was using cold fusion ~12000 years ago.

The trident is a fishing tool. You use it to spear a fish, and then pull it out. That’s the point of the barbed hooks on the tips. It’s a pretty terrible weapon in any circumstances. You can jab things with it, but by design, you’re not supposed to be able to pull them out again. It’s a nasty thing to be using in ritualized duels.

The Retiarius was a Roman gladiator armed with a trident and net. Which should give some hints to how bloody and impractical they are as weapons.

What you see in Aquaman is a mix of staff techniques, with a few embellishments, such as throwing them. So far as it goes, there’s nothing wrong with a civilization having ceremonial weapons that aren’t entirely practical when they’re used for specific combat environments. Example: The Retiarii. However, these aren’t practical combat weapons, and trying think of them as such is a mistake.

I’ve got reservations on the plasma weapons. This is mostly excusable, but the amount of energy required to fire a beam weapon with a visible energy path is insane. This is the problem with all high energy weapons, and, the civilization we’re presented with has certainly had time to work that out, but, it’s nuts. That the energy blasts have a sheath which allows them to operate underwater is, “odd,” though again, we’re past the point where considerations like that really matter.

I’d have more of an issue with the gauntlets, except they’re accompanied by powered exosuits, so, issues with drag start to become somewhat less important.

The swords make sense. The big thing about fighting underwater is drag. You’re not moving through air (maybe, this isn’t a consideration for the Atlantians, but for anyone else,) you need to push the water out of the way. This increases the exertion, and slows your movements. The bigger and more cumbersome the weapon, the harder you have to work to get it up to speed (or stop it.) This becomes a problem when you’re just trying to punch someone underwater. As a result, the most dangerous melee weapons underwater are knives. The swords that you see in Aquaman are a reasonable compromise. Short, aerodynamic (or, hydrodynamic in this case), and still offer some additional reach. They also seem to have some additional powered functionality, which makes sense.

There’s some fun details mixed into the film if you’ve done the reading, and I don’t mean the comics. The white and gold metal you see is probably supposed to be different variants of Orichalcum. The film calls this, “Atlantian Steel,” but the reality is a copper alloy. (Though, it’s unclear exactly what the copper was alloyed with. Probably, tin, brass, or gold) The golden version comes out of Greek literature sometime in the 7th century BC. Plato would later tie the metal to Atlantis, as their primary mineral resource, though the mines had been depleted for some time. White Orichalcum comes from a collection that was falsely attributed to Aristotle. (The real author of On Marvelous Things Heard probably wanted to lend their work more credibility, and claimed it was written by Aristotle. This was more common than you might realize. There’s even a term for it: “Pseudepigrapha.”) You can think of them as philosophical fan fiction, if you want.

Atlantis itself is an interesting topic, and there’s hints of this floating around in the film. So, kinda important to frame this. Atlantis is fiction, not myth. We know the author, it was Plato. He may have drawn inspiration from other sources, but Atlantis was primarily written as an example of his system of government from The Republic. It doesn’t actually appear in that work, but pops up an in depth illustration in some of the later Dialogues. You can think of it as a fourth century BC version of Starship Troopers. It’s not supposed to be read as a literal place, and more as an illustration of the author’s political philosophy, and how they believe government should work. (There’s some allegory there, as both Heinlein and Plato disliked the idea that republics allowed “everyone” to participate.)

I’m bringing this up, because in Plato’s genealogy for the island, the King Atlas, was the firstborn child of Poseidon and Cleito. That’s what the tridents are doing there. The original story tied the island to Poseidon. They’re using the tridents in ritual duels because they’re a symbol of their god.

-Starke

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