If you asked me to name the lamest superhero, I’d say it was Aquaman. The character has a history of not being taken seriously. With the casting of Jason Momoa and the release of Aquaman, DC have hoped to repair damage that has built up over decades. Having seen the film, I can say it was entertaining. But the character who stood out to me was Black Manta. Considered to be Aquaman’s archenemy, Black Manta has one of the most unique appearances of any supervillain. Far from being lame, Black Manta is a villain worth knowing about.
From the deep
The character, created by Bob Haney and Nick Cardy, made his first appearance in 1967’s Aquaman #35. Much later, Black Manta received an origin story in the pages of 1993’s Aquaman #6. David Hyde grew up in Baltimore and liked to play by the Chesapeake Bay. As a boy, he was kidnapped and abused by a gang of pirates.
One day, Hyde spotted Aquaman out and sea and tried to signal him for help. However, Aquaman didn’t see him, which forced Hyde to take matters into his own hands. Hyde killed one of his captors and escaped. Believing the sea to be cruel and thinking of Aquaman as its representative, Hyde vowed to hunt him down.
This origin was retconned in 2003’s Aquaman #8. An autistic orphan, Hyde spent his formative years in Arkham Asylum. He felt at home in freezing water and found cotton sheets to be painful. As the attendants didn’t know how to deal with autism, they restrained Hyde to bed. This made his condition worse. Over time, Hyde developed a fascination with Aquaman through seeing him on TV.
When the boy was older, a scientist experimented on him. The treatment manged to cure Black Manta’s autism and give him superhuman strength. However, it made him violent and he killed the scientist. He escaped from Arkham and went on to become a feared mercenary and pirate.
Of the two origins, I prefer the updated version. Manta’s autism is something that’s rarely been explored in other villains. It could be argued the staff at Arkham Asylum were partially responsible for turning him into a monster.
Aquaman’s greatest enemy
Black Manta used his intelligence to build an ocean-adapted battle suit. It featured a variety of weapons, including a trident, wrist-mounted speargun, retractable blades, twin swords and miniature torpedoes. The most notable feature became the bug-like helmet that fired optic blasts powerful enough to harm Aquaman. The suit further enhanced the strength and stamina Black Manta gained from the serum.
Black Manta’s desire to conquer the ocean brought him into conflict with Aquaman and they developed a bitter rivalry. The hatred between them reached a new level when Black Manta kidnapped and killed Aquaman’s son, Arthur Curry Jr.
Years later, Black Manta discovered he had a son called Jackson, who went on to become the second Aqualad. Aquaman rescued Jackson from his father’s clutches, teaching him how to control his powers. This could be seen as a type of revenge on Aquaman’s part for the death of his son. Black Manta felt nothing but hatred for his offspring and vowed to kill him.
In the Aquaman movie, Black Manta is played by Yahya Abdul-Mateen II. The actor has stated he felt a tremendous amount of pressure to do the role justice.
“I knew that this was a guy that people love and people relate to for whatever reasons. They know that he’s a badass character . They know about his anger, about the destruction. That he’s a funny character. They love the costume and you never know what he’s going to do when he shows up. And so to be able to step into it and to add a lot of those elements to the things that I was going after, it was a really phenomenal experience.”
I thought Mateen did a decent job of portraying Manta. The character has a complexity to him that provides a counterpoint to Aquaman’s heroism. I think Black Manta can be seen as an allegory for human consumption of the oceans. We can be ruthless when it comes to destroying nature, and all of that brutality makes Black Manta a captivating villain.