He may never have garnered the kind of popularity, heroic place in pop culture, or iconic significance of his Justice League teammates, but one thing Aquaman did have was a handful of tried and true rivals. With the strength of Superman, the royal courage of Wonder Woman, and the ability to wield marine life like machines of war, most of Arthur Curry’s enemies have drawn power from magic, the supernatural, or a claim to his throne. Except for that one enemy who relies on a life spent determined to track, torment, and murder the King of Atlantis, relying on nothing but his mind and body to do it.
That’s right, the villainous Black Manta is all but cast in James Wan’s Aquaman film as part of the larger DCEU, surprising few but piquing the curiosity of just as many. The decades since his introduction have provided plenty of strange and horrifying stories with him at their center, but with Aquaman’s brother Ocean Master presumed to be the main rival of the movie, what Wan has in store for Black Manta is now a mystery.
Whatever that plan may amount to on screen, there’s a good chance interested movie fans will be a bit thrown by the villain’s name – or, more likely, his choice of headgear. So allow us to catch you up to speed on the essentials when it comes to Black Manta, and how he may factor into the Aquaman movie.
The Truly Weird Beginnings of Black Manta
Since it’s usually how comic book heroes and their most dependable villains are formed, fans would be justified in thinking that Black Manta was one of the earliest, most interesting, or sympathetic villains to face off against Aquaman upon his DC debut. But the truth of the story is much, much, stranger. Beginning with the fact that Black Manta’s first appearance – in Aquaman #35 (1967) – came with no introduction, no explanation, and no fanfare. A submarine accompanied by a squad of “Manta Men” attacked Atlantis, and Aquaman knew it could only be his old foe, “Black Manta.”
The time at which the comic was released can explain away the irrational debut, when a villain in a bulbous helmet was as good an enemy as any other. But in the years that followed, writers sought to give Manta a more complicated story and character. To say the least, the results were varied, tonally random, and more than anything… weird. As often ill-informed as they were interesting, it’s only in hindsight that the stories seem misguided, since these origin stories could have been turned into nuanced, long-lasting narratives. But with regular reboots throughout the 1990s and 2000s, we have a long list of influences that James Wan can (but may choose not to) draw from.
In Aquaman #6 (1993) writer Shaun McLaughlin turned Black Manta into a tragic figure, revealing his own childhood trauma that devoted him to years of cruelly tormenting Arthur Curry and his family. Kidnapped and pressed into service on a fishing vessel, facing physical and (implied) sexual abuse, Manta – or ‘David’ – grew to despise the sea and everything in it, chiefly Aquaman, who failed to hear his cries for help. In Aquaman #8 (2003), Rick Veitch imagined Manta’s childhood as one spent at Arkham Asylum, at a time when few understood how to diagnose, let alone treat his autism. More at home in water than a bed, harsh “therapies” rendered him a violent, hateful killer focused on Aquaman, before the Atlantean king cured his mind (but actually didn’t).
Then there was the time he revealed “Black Manta” was a reference to his African-American heritage, and he intended to defeat Arthur to create an underwater nation for his brothers and sisters of color. But that, too, was merely a ruse. The point is, Manta hates Aquaman, and the reasons for that hatred have ranged from interesting to confusing and guaranteed never to be adapted to the big screen. But there are some major storylines worth pointing out.
The Father of Aqualad
Black Manta slipped from the main DC Universe following the death of Arthur Curry in the early 1990s. But when he was resurrected as part of DC’s “Blackest Night” that all changed. In the first issue of the follow-up “Brightest Day,” Aquaman returned to the scene, rescuing a group of children from human traffickers and making headlines in the process. Black Manta, having given up his high-tech gadgets, weaponry, and treasure hunting career, was working in a fish market when the TV news revealed “Aquaman is back.” Without hesitation, he steadied his blade, murdered everyone present, and headed back to make good on his promise to kill the aquatic king.
After some general villain-ing, a group of quasi-Atlanteans hailing from Xebel – the extra-dimensional, aquatic society from which Mera, Arthur’s longtime love, also originated – to inform Black Manta that he had more than revenge to motivate him. The new Aqualad fighting to continue Aquaman’s legacy with the younger generation of DC heroes was no Atlantean… he was Manta’s son. In yet another origin story, Manta and his pregnant wife were descended upon by the Xebelians before returning to their own home. Experiments were conducted upon the unborn child, granting him his superhuman abilities, and shaping him into the living, breathing reminder of the life stolen from Manta.
He did his best to murder the boy, but with his abilities reaching full power, and with Aquaman, Mera, and Aquagirl helping him, the fight went in his favor, leaving Manta to escape and plot his next attack. It was a clever merging of several storylines in the DC Universe, and one that could be picked up if the DCEU ever receives a Teen Titans branch. But if we were betting, it’s Geoff Johns’s most recent reboot of the character that will be use as foundation for adaptation – since Johns is also leading DC Films.
Geoff Johns’s New 52 Version
Every comic book fan was aware of how little respect Aquaman was given when the launch of the New 52 rolled around, and Geoff Johns was determined to change the conversation. Taking the lead on Aquaman out of the gate, Johns delivered one of Arhur Curry’s best adventures and mythology-expanding epics to date. After dealing with an underwater threat, the focus shifted to old friends of Aquaman being tracked down and murdered, one by one. The culprit was, unsurprisingly, Black Manta. But this time around, his mission against Aquaman was completely earned – and not the kind of origin story a superhero tends to receive. Because it was Aquaman who committed the murder that started their feud.
The explanation is discovered by Mera, after interrogating Dr. Stephen Shin, a doctor Tom Curry turned to when trying to help his son cope with his emerging Atlantean abilities. When Shin went public with the discovery, but Tom and Arthur refused to validate his claims, Shin lost everything, becoming the laughing stock of the scientific community. He went to some extreme measures, tracking down a fearsome treasure hunter with a simple job: track down Arthur Curry, and return with a blood sample. The hunter found his target, but was intercepted by Arthur’s father who suffered a heart attack as a result. Once Tom was buried, Arthur gave in to his rage, seeking out the hunter responsible for his father’s death hoping to return the favor.
Arthur found the hunter’s ship, and killed the man he believed responsible. Except his victim was the hunter’s innocent father. Aquaman disfigured the son and fled, leaving his newfound foe to take up the mantle of Manta… and vow to have his revenge. Some expensive diving equipment, ruthless killer instinct, and an unmistakable helmet capable of blasting intense heat later, and you’ve got yourself a supervillain.
With Black Manta and Ocean Master in play, it’s just as likely that the former will be manipulated, or simply aided by the latter. In the comics, the most recent blockbuster-scale event (under Johns’s guidance) involved Ocean Master launching an attack on humanity, whom Arthur has come to see as his people every bit as much as Atlanteans. If that’s the plan for the film, or some variant thereof, then expect Black Manta’s presence to play a supporting role – but that doesn’t mean he won’t be every bit as brutal, or mysterious as hoped for. And in the world of superhero movie-making… there’s always the sequel.