There’s more to Manta than his over the top helmet.
The news that Yahya Abdul-Mateen II is in talks to play Black Manta in James Wan’s Aquaman was a surprise, if only because Patrick Wilson had already signed on to play another villain, Ocean Master — but when it comes to choosing the ultimate bad guy for DC’s aquatic superhero, Manta is probably the best bet.
Let’s get the awkward name out of the way first, before we go any further. Although it’s sadly a tradition for African-American comic book superheroes and villains to have the word “Black” as part of their name — Marvel has the Black Panther, Black Goliath, Black Mariah and Black Talon alone — Black Manta’s secret identity (and, therefore, ethnicity) weren’t revealed for the first ten years of his existence; he debuted in 1967’s Aquaman No. 35, but wasn’t unmasked until 1977’s Adventure Comics No. 452. Sadly, the unmasking was done with as little subtlety as you might have feared:
The name — and, admittedly, somewhat goofy-looking costume — aside, Manta is a surprisingly complex character. Since his creation, he’s been defined by an obsession with Aquaman that borders on the tragic, yet occasionally teased with the possibility of redemption in some form.
The reasons behind the obsession have shifted across the decades. Originally, Manta — who has never been given a real name beyond “David,” oddly enough — blamed Aquaman for not rescuing him from being kidnapped by pirates as a youth, leading to Manta murdering his captor and escaping. (Aquaman was unaware it had happened.) Since the 2011 relaunch of DC’s comic book line, that rationale has altered; now a teenage version of Manta was accidentally responsible for the death of Aquaman’s father, which led to Aquaman killing Manta’s father, believing him to be the murderer. The two have, ever since, been sworn enemies.
Whatever the origin of their conflict, Manta has long been responsible for the most brutal attacks on Aquaman. In the 1977 storyline that revived the character after years of neglect, he murdered Aquaman’s son as part of a death trap intended to also lead to the hero being forced to kill his own wife; although the trap ultimately failed, the loss of their child drove the two apart for a number of years. Later storylines would see him literally trade his soul to a demon in exchange for super powers that would allow him to defeat the hero, as well as become involved in a plot to transform humans into water-breathers to further complicate Aquaman’s underwater kingdom.
Despite this, however, there has been glimpses of another path for the character. Both 2010’s Brightest Day and 2013’s Forever Evil series suggested that, when he believes that Aquaman is no longer around for whatever reason — in one case, dead, in another, sentenced to another dimension — then he can step into an anti-hero role with ease, using the same skills he’s put into play in any number of death traps to better use in making the world a better place. To this end, he even served a brief stint with the Suicide Squad, albeit one that ended poorly when he went native and betrayed the team to a fascist dictator; these things happen, though.
At the center of the character, however, is this strange truth that is both fascinating and somewhat out of place for an Aquaman villain: Black Manta is Batman gone wrong. He’s someone so traumatized by his childhood that he has become obsessive about perfecting himself in the service of ensuring that he can never be hurt again… and if that means he’ll continually try and fight the thing that hurt him in the first place, all the better.
Ben Affleck might have already taken the role of Bruce Wayne in the Justice League universe, but Yahya Abdul-Mateen II might be about to get the next best thing… with the added bonus of getting to beat up Jason Momoa as part of the package. All of that is more than worth the indignity of dealing with that helmet.