Origin Story: Aquaman’s Black Manta

Blair Marnell
Movies Comics
Movies Comics DC

Within the realm of comic books, the great superheroes always have a villain worthy of being their archnemesis. Even minor heroes tend to go up against the same bad guys over and over again. But only the elite characters have an opposite number who is almost as iconic as they are. Batman has the Joker, Superman has Lex Luthor, and Aquaman has Black Manta.

Admittedly, it took a couple of decades for Aquaman to shake off his undeserved reputation as a lightweight and reach the heights of his heroic counterparts, thanks in part to the live-action DC Extended Universe and Jason Momoa’s starring turn in the billion dollar-grossing Aquaman. Later this year, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II’s Black Manta is stepping up as the primary villain in Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom. Black Manta was a secondary threat in the original film, and now he’s out for revenge against Arthur Curry. And this time, Black Manta has a chance to take his place alongside the great comic book movie villains.

Scourge of the Seven Seas

While Aquaman made his first appearance in 1941, Black Manta wasn’t introduced as his adversary until Aquaman #35 in 1967. As envisioned by writer Bob Haney and artist Nick Cardy, Black Manta was the leader of the Manta-Men who nearly conquered Atlantis in his first appearance. Only the unexpected interference of Aquman’s other nemesis, Ocean Master, led to Black Manta’s defeat.

It wasn’t until a decade later in 1977 that readers learned more about Black Manta as he took off his helmet for the first time in Adventure Comics #452 and revealed that he was African-American. Black Manta claimed that he was championing the rights of Black people to conquer the ocean to escape their oppression on land. But his stated objective was just a front for his lust for power.

This was also the issue where Black Manta struck his greatest blow against Arthur by placing his infant son, Arthur Curry, Jr., in a death trap – one the hero actually couldn’t overcome. Aquaman did everything he could to free Arthur Jr., but it was too late to save his son from suffocating to death. That tragedy haunted Aquaman for years and led to the breakup of his marriage with Mera. This is also why Black Manta is the villain that Aquaman despises above all others.

Original Origin

Surprisingly, Black Manta wasn’t given a proper origin until 1992 in the pages of Aquaman Vol 4 #6. In this version, the boy who was destined to become Black Manta was kidnapped and enslaved on a pirate ship when he was very young. Desperate to escape his captivity, the unnamed boy tried to get the attention of Aquaman when he saw the future hero swimming with dolphins. But when Arthur failed to see the boy, the future Black Manta began to despise him for it. He saw Aquaman as the face of everything he came to hate about the sea. And as Black Manta, he had the means to get his revenge.

For his part, Arthur had no idea that any of this had happened. He didn’t know why Black Manta hated him, and he stopped caring after so many attacks on his friends and family.

Batman Villain Adjacent

The second version of Black Manta’s origin was unveiled in 2003 in Aquaman Vol 6 #8, when it was revealed that young Black Manta was an autistic child who was treated in Gotham City’s Arkham Asylum. Keep in mind, that’s where Batman sends all of his craziest villains. And someone decided that this was the perfect place to put an innocent autistic boy.

Young Black Manta’s treatment went about as well as you might expect, given the pedigree of Arkham. The doctors subjected him to experiments and the attendants abused him. Aquaman is barely present in this incarnation of the origin, and he was simply a figure that young Black Manta saw on TV.

At some point, the experiments on young Black Manta provided results, but probably not the results that were intended. Most of young Black Manta’s neurodivergent tendencies disappeared, only to be replaced by murderous impulses. Black Manta’s doctor was his first victim, but not his last. Given that this happened in Gotham City, it probably would have made more sense for Black Manta to attack the Dark Knight. Instead, he went after Aquaman, as he always does.

Animated Menace

Aquaman’s first TV series was the animated show, The Superman/Aquaman Hour of Adventure back in 1967. Black Manta was actually in the first Aquaman episode and he went on to appear multiple times. Black Manta returned in The All-New Super Friends Hour, the second series in the long-running Saturday morning cartoon franchise.

Perhaps the most famous animated version of Black Manta arrived in the third Super Friends series, Challenge of the Superfriends. Black Manta was once again Aquaman’s direct nemesis, but he was also a member of the supervillain team, the Legion of Doom.

That particular incarnation of Black Manta was referenced decades later in Justice League Unlimited when a character named Devil Ray was a member of Gorilla Grodd and Lex Luthor’s Legion. Black Manta’s name was changed because there was an Aquaman live-action series in development at the time starring Justin Hartley, and the animated show’s producers no longer had permission to use the Aquaman-related characters. Devil Ray also met a sudden end on the show when he was killed by Deadman (in Batman’s body) to save Wonder Woman’s life.

Smallville’s Legion

The aforementioned Aquaman live-action series did not go forward, although future Jack Reacher and Titans star Alan Ritchson made a few appearances as Arthur Curry/Aquaman on Smallville. Black Manta only made one appearance though, in what was basically an Easter egg cameo in the season 10 episode, “Prophecy.”

Smallville had its version of the Justice League, which was often just called the League. But it wasn’t until one of the final episodes in the series that viewers learned that the Legion of Doom had a counterpart as well. Instead of being called the Legion, several villains were a part of Marionette Ventures under the leadership of Winslow Schott (Chris Gauthier), a.k.a. Toyman.

Black Manta says nothing in his cameo role as he sits alongside Solomon Grundy, Metallo, Roulette, Captain Cold, and Vordigan/Dark Archer as they are given their individual targets in the League. Unfortunately, as the last episode before the two-part series finale, this development was never followed up on.

Black Manta and Son

Young Justice gave audiences the most nuanced version of Black Manta to date, in part because it was also the series that introduced Black Manta’s son, Kaldur’ahm, whose heroic codename was Aqualad. Kaldur was not initially aware of his connection to Black Manta, and the truth came out between seasons 1 and 2.

In Young Justice: Invasion, Kaldur seemingly defected to Black Manta’s side and embraced his father’s legacy. He even wore armor similar to Black Manta’s design. This turned out to be a long-term undercover operation that even Aquaman was ignorant about. But while Kaldur’s mission was to infiltrate his father’s organization, The Light, he also came to truly care for Black Manta and he respected his noble qualities. When Kaldur’s mind was broken by a misguided Miss Martian, Black Manta kidnapped her and forced her to repair the damage she had caused to Kaldur’s brain.

Despite his growing connection to his father, Kaldur went through with the original plan. That brought him face-to-face with Black Manta in a climatic battle which he won. By the time the third season rolled around, Kaldur had taken over the role of Aquaman while Black Manta was blackmailed into joining Task Force X, which is better known as the Suicide Squad. But father and son remain at odds, and Black Manta was particularly dismayed that his son followed Aquaman’s legacy instead of his own.

Meet the Hydes

Kaldur’ahm’s introduction in Young Justice soon led to his inclusion in DC’s comic book universe as Jackson Hyde, the previously unknown son of Black Manta’s alter ego, David Milton Hyde. This also gave Black Manta a new origin in which he and his wife were oceanic treasure hunters who were kidnapped by operatives from Xebel, the other-dimensional kingdom of Aquaman’s wife, Mera. Xebel scientists performed experiments on Black Manta’s wife which gave their child the waterbending powers that many of Mera’s people already had. Out of mercy, Mera left Xebel with Jackson and arranged for him to be raised by a human couple far from the ocean.

While Black Manta eventually pulled off his own escape from Xebel, his wife did not survive. He held a grudge against Mera for his ordeal, but unlike his counterpart in Young Justice, Black Adam does not have warm parental feelings for his son. And he has shown a willingness to kill Jackson if he stands in the way of his father’s ambitions.

Fathers and Sons

In 2012, Black Manta got his fourth origin story, and this is the one that appears to have stuck. Within the revised history of The New 52, David Hyde has a more personal vendetta against Aquaman because of an incident that took place when they were young. David’s father, Jesse Hyde, ran a salvage operation at sea, but found himself struggling for money. That was why David accepted an assignment to steal a sample of Arthur Curry’s blood to provide proof that he was Atlantean.

Arthur’s adoptive father, Tom Curry, stopped the attempt, but suffered a heart attack while fighting David and he died soon after. Out of a desire for revenge, young Arthur tracked down David’s ship and murdered Jesse because he mistook the older man for his son. That led to the bad blood between Aquaman and Black Manta that has never been resolved.

Big Screen Debut

The origin story mentioned above was loosely adapted in the first Aquaman movie, which featured Michael Beach as David’s father, Jesse Kane. Together, Jesse and David were the leaders of pirates who had successfully hijacked a Russian submarine. Jesse even took a moment to tell David about his grandfather, one of the Navy’s first frogmen soldiers who served his country in World War II and earned the nickname “Manta.” But when his country turned his back on him, David’s grandfather took to the seas as a scavenger.

Aquaman arrived shortly thereafter and made short work of David and Jesse’s men. He even complained that he was missing Happy Hour by being there. Aquaman did impale Jesse after he tried to kill him, but the subsequent flooding of the submarine was caused by Jesse’s second attempt to shoot Aquaman. However, Aquaman had a callous response to David’s pleas to help him save his father’s life, which earned him David’s undying hatred.

Later in the film, it was revealed that David and his father were working for Orm (Patrick Wilson), Aquaman’s half-brother and the king of Atlantis. In this universe, David’s armor was advanced Atlantean technology, and he gave himself the Black Manta moniker as a tribute to his father and grandfather. With that high tech armor at his disposal, David even had Aquaman on the ropes during their second encounter. Yet he was ultimately defeated and left for dead.

But in the mid-credits scene, it was revealed that David survived thanks to the aid of Dr. Stephen Shin (Randall Park), and he once again vowed to get his revenge on Aquaman.

Black Manta’s Revenge

Later this year, Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom will give Black Manta a chance to make good on that vow of vengeance. This time, Black Manta is poised to be the main villain of the sequel, and he will be armed with the Black Trident, an object so powerful that it threatens Atlantis itself. Aquaman can’t handle that by himself, so he will turn to an unexpected ally for help: his estranged half-brother, Orm. This is ironic because Orm hates his half-brother, and he worked with Black Manta in the previous film. So it should be interesting to see if Arthur can trust Orm to remain on his side against Black Manta.

How will the conflict play out? We’ll find out when Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom arrives in theaters on Wednesday, December 20.

Blair Marnell
Freelance writer for almost every major geek outlet, including Fandom!