PhD Student Luis Grande Branger Tackles Aquaman and White Supremacy in New Publication
By Gina Myers
April 15, 2021
While sitting in a dark theater watching 2018’s Aquaman, were audiences simply enjoying a couple hours of entertaining comic book-based distraction, or were they picking up on the movie’s heavier themes and noticing a critique of American white supremacy? At least one viewer, Drexel graduate student Luis Grande Branger, was noting the latter.
Grande Branger, a Communication, Culture and Media doctoral student, develops this idea in his essay “Aquaman and the American White Supremacy,” which has been accepted for publication in The Cinema of James Wan: Critical Essays. Edited by Fernando Gabriel Pagnoni Berns and Matthew Edwards, the collection seeks to fill the lack of scholarship on director James Wan’s work through in-depth essays from a wide range of critical perspectives.
While Wan is mostly known for his work in the horror genre, Grande Branger, a self-described geek who has always loved sci-fi, fantasy and comic books, was interested in the director’s step into the DC Comics world. He initially wrote about symbolism in the movie on La Pantalla Grande (The Big Screen), a Spanish-language film analysis blog that he kept at the time, before developing it into an academic essay. In the essay, Grande Branger argues that the film addresses the American discussion about race, immigration, nationalism and white supremacy through the portrayal of Aquaman’s mixed identity (part-human and part-Atlantean) and his battle with Orm, the King of Atlantis who wants to eliminate all humans.
This is Grande Branger’s first academic publication and his first appearance in a book. “I have written numerous articles for newspapers in the past, but I feel that this is a milestone in my journey as a scholar,” he says. “Being part of a McFarland academic book, edited by Fernando Gabriel Pagnoni Berns and Matthew Edwards, who have published multiple excellent books about world cinema, is an absolute honor. I am eager to have a copy of the book and read the other essays because I am sure they will be enthralling.”
Grande Branger recently answered questions about his academic interests, the power of storytelling, his love of comic books and his forthcoming publication via email.
Can you tell me a little about yourself?
I was born in Caracas, Venezuela. I have a bachelor’s degree in media production from the University of Puerto Rico. I completed a master’s degree in liberal studies at the University of Miami, and then I went back to the University of Puerto Rico to obtain a master’s degree in communication theory and research.
I have also worked in the field of communication for more than a decade—as a journalist, videographer, film critic, media producer and video editor.
What made you want to pursue your PhD in Communication, Culture and Media (CCM) at Drexel? What is the focus of your studies?
I have always been very interested in the relationship between media and culture, and my goal is to become a college professor. I found the CCM program and I saw it as the perfect fit for my research interests, given its interdisciplinary approach, the faculty and the program’s focus on culture. Also, I always wanted to visit Philadelphia, so I was excited about the possibility of living here.
My research interests are semiotics, media discourse and representation, hyperreality and media ecology (or the impact of mediation technologies in the human experience). At the moment, I am very interested in the commodification of digitized bodies, and my dissertation will be focused on the symbolic impact of disembodied digital entities like AI and digital influencers.
What is it that interests you about working in and writing about film?
Storytelling is a central aspect of human nature. We understand our world and our relationships with things, others and even ourselves through stories. Film is a very powerful way to tell stories and I have always loved this medium.
I can remember the first film I saw at a movie theater. I was a little kid when my mom took me to see The Neverending Story (which is a story about storytelling and imagination, but also about the blending of reality and representation—which is the definition of hyperreality). Then I received the film in home video format as a gift and I used to watch it every day. How we identify with films, and how they say so much about us through fictional stories, is something that I have always been passionate about.
Have you always been interested in the films of James Wan? What inspired you to write this essay on Aquaman?
To be honest, I am not a fan of the horror genre. However, I can count with one hand the horror films that I actually like, and James Wan’s Saw is one of them. I also like Insidious, which was also made by Wan, and most of the few horror thrillers that I love have been inspired and influenced by his work. Moreover, I admire his directing and his storytelling skills. On the other hand, superhero narratives fascinate me, not only because fantasy and sci-fi are my favorite genres, but because I think superheroes are the mythology of the 21st century. Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Captain America and Iron Man are the contemporary equivalents of Hercules, Achilles, Athena, Perseus or Odysseus.
When I watched Aquaman, I wrote an essay about its symbolism for my film analysis blog. Then I found the call for essays and decided to expand the essay and turn it into an academic paper in order to submit it.
In your essay, you demonstrate a lot of knowledge about comic books. Have you always been interested in comic books and superheroes?
I have always been a geek. I have always loved sci-fi and fantasy movies and books, roleplaying games, video games and, yes, comic books too. I used to create comic books when I was a kid. My dad always remembers how I would fill entire notebooks with them, and I would give them away as gifts in school. I had created several characters and worked with different genres like superheroes, sci-fi and action. I was also a huge fan of Marvel and DC Comics, but I was terrible at collecting them—first of all, because they were hard to find in Venezuela when I was a kid, and second, because I am a terrible collector. I am too disorganized.
You note that Aquaman is significant in the filmography of James Wan. Can you briefly explain why?
Not only is it a different genre compared to the rest of his filmography (as is also the case with Furious 7), but also James Wan is a Malaysian-Australian filmmaker living in Australia, who wasn’t recognized as a prominent Australian director until very recently, so I am sure that the story of Aquaman and his quest to make the Atlanteans accept his mixed heritage is an important theme to him. Also, the film is kind of a homage/resignification of H.P. Lovecraft’s novella The Dunwich Horror, and Wan himself has admitted how much this writer has influenced his horror movies.
In your essay, you interpret the film as a commentary on current debates of race, immigration and white supremacy in the United States. Can you briefly summarize your thesis and conclusion?
My thesis is basically that Arthur Curry (Aquaman) is a metaphor of the United States as a mixed country of immigrants, and his nemesis, his half-brother Orm, is a metaphor of a pure-blood White America, in which immigrants are seen as a threat. Within the story and the script, for example, you can see clear parallels between what Orm says and the ideas found in white supremacist books, manifestos and rhetoric. In my essay, I talk about how every element in the production points to the discussion between the parties believing each of these two ideas, but also about how James Wan provides a suggestion about how immigrants and people of color can successfully end this debate.