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Friday, August 12, 2016

The Man Who Killed Aquaman's Son: Black Manta Revealed as Aquaman Villain

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Edited by Robert Beach

One of the more frustrating elements of the so-called “DC Entertainment Universe” is that WB’s general apathy as producers means that the slow drip of information about their various projects is even slower and sparser than their competition. Where Marvel usually sets up bad guys or McGuffins in other films or designs a long stream of character reveals and posters, WB tends to favor stand-alone movies with little fanfare to the various characters revealed within them. That is unless they’re trying to turn audience opinion around. 

That’s why WB was so happy to dump Doomsday in the central trailers for Batman v. Superman or told everyone Wonder Woman was in the movie, or why the marketing for Suicide Squad was ALL about the quirky tone and nothing else. That same casual indifference reared its head again this week as James Wan and WB announced the villain of their upcoming Aquaman movie will be the long-time Aquaman villain Black Manta.

For the most part, Black Manta is the obvious villain choice for Aquaman, even if it’s not the most logical one. Black Manta is pretty much the only villain most casual audience members know for Aquaman thanks to his appearance in the Super Friends TV show.  What’s more, Black Manta has, by far, the most interesting visual design out of Aquaman’s very small rogue's gallery; however, despite his relatively low ranking as a bad guy, Black Manta is probably one of the coolest designed villains in DC’s stable. 

In that respect, he’s almost a prototypical DC villain: impressive visual design that’s instantly unique and recognizable with enough connection to a big-name hero to make him iconic, yet nowhere near the level of character development or identity to define him as a character. Reverse Flash fit into this same bracket for a time until the CW Flash show created a definitive version of the character. 

As you probably picked up on from that, Black Manta doesn’t have much in the way of a definitive origin story.  Like a lot of bad guys, he’s got a couple of different origin stories; neither one popped up till way after his inception. He was created in 1967 as part of DC’s then effort to bring Aquaman into the modern age of superheroes. See, people forget this, but Aquaman is one of the 4 DC superheroes to have existed since the ‘40s, initially debuting during the Golden Age of comics during World War 2. 

That’s part of why Aquaman himself has so many contradicting origin stories, seriously; there are so many different Aquaman origins that could be an article unto itself.  When DC retrofitted Aquaman for the swinging ‘60s where super villains were in vogue (thanks to the Adam West Batman show), they decided to give him a deadly archnemesis dressed in freaky deep-sea diving gear with giant red eyes.

Black Manta proved popular enough to make him one of Aquaman’s three consistent bad guys along with Ocean’s Master and the Fishermen. In the ‘90s, he got his first pitch for an origin story in which he was kidnapped from the Chesapeake Bay and forced into sex slavery; I am not even joking about that. It’s incredibly gross. Later, DC retconned his origin, though it didn’t make things better. 

The 2003 origin was that the Black Manta was a kid from Gotham who had autism that got him sent to Arkham Asylum where they committed weird experiments to try and “cure” him.  The experiments ended up removing his autism, but it caused him to become a violent maniac who took to the seas for reasons that were never entirely clear. 

Honestly, the most interesting thing about Black Manta is that he’s the only premiere black super villain. It’s not that there aren’t any black super villains, but they’re lower-level bad guys like Kilmonger, Bloodspot, White Ape, or Scorcher. Black Manta is the only one who routinely goes head-to-head with a name superhero. Even then, that superhero is Aquaman. There are a few other elements of his character that are interesting: there was a time where his motivation was that he wanted black people to dominate the ocean after they had been oppressed on dry land for so long. 

Later, he killed Aquaman’s infant son, making him the most effective arch-nemesis of all-time. I mean, think about it. He’s the only super villain to kill off the loved one of a major superhero and not have that loved one come back or get killed himself in the process. Sure, Green Goblin killed Gwen Stacey, but it cost him his life in the process. Even though Joker killed Jason Todd, Jason came back. Aquaman’s kid is still very dead. 

That “I killed your son” element is one of the only other things aside from name value to make Black Manta seem like a suitable film bad guy. I’m not saying he couldn’t work for the Aquaman movie. He’s an odd fit. The whole point of the upcoming Aquaman movie is to explore the underwater world of Atlantis. If you’re going to bring up this entire civilization, Black Manta isn’t the man to bring it to its knees. Despite his serious personal vendetta against Aquaman, Manta is most commonly portrayed as a pirate, an undersea raider and plunderer more than a conqueror or genuine threat. 

That’s why a lot of folks, myself included, assumed the Aquaman movie would feature Ocean’s Master: Aquaman’s villainous brother Orm who schemes to steal the throne. Granted, Orm isn’t as cool looking as Black Manta and doesn’t have the same cache of killing Aquaman’s son, but he’s a better fit for the scope and scale blockbuster flicks demand. 

There is one possibility on how James Wan and company might be planning to adapt Black Manta to blockbuster scale. Back in the ‘90s, event comics ruled the world. Every year saw a major shake-up. In 1995, DC’s event comic of the year was called Underworld Unleashed, in which Nero (the DC universe Satan) made a deal with several super villains to give them incredible new powers in exchange for their souls. 

In Black Manta’s case, he traded his soul to become a hideous Manta person with super strength and the ability to breath underwater. Like a lot of Underworld Unleashed ideas, it got ditched quickly. And yet, it’s still a great concept and could easily work as a stakes-raiser for the Aquaman movie if Black Manta was chasing after something to make him a more legitimate threat to ALL of Atlantis. What’s more, the hideous design of Manta’s monster form would fit well with James Wan’s forte of horror films and stated goal of bringing horror elements to the Aquaman movie. 

Aquaman is scheduled for release on July 27, 2018

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