The Unintentional In-Joke That Got AQUAMAN’s Biggest Laugh In New Zealand

Plus, a deviation into the country’s domestic abuse problem.

“I was going to cook you some eggs.”

It’s an innocuous line in Aquaman. Temuera Morrison’s lighthouse keeper Tom Curry says it early on to Nicole Kidman’s Queen Atlanna, the morning after finding her unconscious on the beach. A nice gesture, for sure. Eggs are nice. But more or less a throwaway line.

That little line got the biggest laugh in the movie with audiences all across New Zealand.

There’s nothing inherently funny about it, obviously. And eggs themselves don’t have a particularly higher level of significance in New Zealand to anywhere else. But by virtue of Temuera Morrison delivering it, it takes on a whole other dimension of meaning - to New Zealanders, especially. To understand why, one must understand two things.

First, one must understand the content and popularity of the 1994 film Once Were Warriors within New Zealand. The film follows the Heke family, as matriarch Beth (Rena Owen) attempts to hold things together in the face of her violently alcoholic husband Jake “The Muss” (Morrison), omnipresent gang activity, and the issues that stem from being poor and Maori in South Auckland. It's complex, intelligent, perceptive, and emotional, juxtaposing Maori tradition against contemporary issues. 

In one of the film’s most unpleasantly memorable scenes, Uncle Bully (Cliff Curtis) asks Beth to cook him some eggs. She refuses. Jake steps in, ordering her to “cook the man some eggs;” she refuses again, throwing the eggs on the floor one by one in protest. Jake says once more, “cook the man some fuckin’ eggs,” and as Beth responds, he punches her in the face. His subsequent attack is extended, vicious, and extremely difficult to watch. I’ll post the trailer here - it’s not the scene in question, for reasons I’ll get to, but despite an unfortunate Americanised voiceover it’ll give you an idea of the tone of the piece.

Once Were Warriors is a stunning feature debut from director Lee Tamahori, containing all-time great performances from Morrison and Owen. It’s also one of the most popular New Zealand films within New Zealand - routinely voted best New Zealand film of all time, and one of the first titles that comes to any Kiwi’s mind when discussing local filmmaking. The poster hung in my high school classroom. It’s everywhere.

Secondly, one must understand that “cook the man some fuckin’ eggs” isn’t just a popular movie quote - it’s escaped its source material to become a meme of sorts. New Zealand has a lot going for it, but it also has a major issue with domestic violence, going back to its colonial foundation. Historically, it’s been so prevalent (twice as much among Maori, thanks to prolonged social inequality), so widely-known as a societal issue, that for some, it's a punchline. Whenever the All Blacks lose a rugby match, jokes come up about fans going home to beat their wives. The same jokes come up when they win. A horrific 2006 case involving sports broadcaster Tony Veitch kicking his partner down a set of stairs, breaking her back in four places, heralded an increase in awareness of the issue - but it also resulted in a lot of men cracking wise about it, including the use of “Veitch” as a verb.

Even that, however, doesn’t have the weight and staying power of “cook the man some fuckin’ eggs.” Once Were Warriors is reflective of New Zealand's social issues, examining the various factors that led to them, but its literal content also sadly fed into the culture around it. Telling someone directly to “cook [someone] some eggs” in New Zealand automatically brings up connotations of domestic violence. For New Zealand’s less-savoury men, the line is a joke - so much so that I literally could not find a clean copy of the scene on YouTube that’s not either labeled something like “Jake treats his woman right” or intercut with memey bullshit.

UPDATE: NZ On Screen came through with the clip (content warning obviously applies):

Back to Aquaman: the rest of the cast or crew (including director James Wan) were unaware of this reference, of course. Morrison stated to NZ news outlet Stuff:

"No one knew that this was a Once Were Warriors reference. I was the only one that got the joke. I knew they would probably laugh at it in New Zealand, so I played it up a bit."

He sure did, and it paid off - at least on his home turf. The line got big laughs across the country, and if you look at it within the context of Morrison’s career, his offer to cook Nicole Kidman those eggs is a clever inversion of his most enduring line and role. This is Morrison’s “I’ll be back;” his “alright, alright, alright” - the line he’s doomed to have parroted at him by passers-by until the end of his days. Is it weird that it comes from a scene of domestic violence? Absolutely. But so it goes. He is terrific in that movie, after all.

Happily, Morrison’s played-up delivery is just one of several notes that lend Aquaman (and Aquaman himself) an implicit Kiwi-ness, to those who know what to look for. In addition to Morrison (and accordingly, his onscreen son) being New Zealand Maori, Jason Momoa chose to wear a pounamu (greenstone) necklace, and the two converse about getting tā moko (the traditional Maori tattoo inscribed with a chisel). Momoa also pushed for Morrison’s casting in the first place, out of a love for Once Were Warriors.

What a jarring feeling, though. Having been out of New Zealand a while, gaining some distance from its culture, it’s bizarre to be reminded of a domestic violence epidemic through a faintly jokey reference in a DC Comics movie, intentional or not. It certainly wasn’t intentional on Wan’s part, and the joke for Morrison was merely one about his history as an actor. But for me, Aquaman served as a strange reminder of the casual misogyny prevalent in much of my country. Never expected that to occupy my mind while watching armoured Atlanteans ride seahorses.

Check out Once Were Warriors, will you? Ta.