One of the coolest things about the new James Wan-directed Aquaman is the big-screen debut of Black Manta, one of the King of Atlantis’ most enduring and popular villains who first appeared in the comics back in 1967. As played by Yahya Abdul-Mateen II (The Greatest Showman), David Kane is the young leader of a band of pirates who runs headlong into the title hero after hijacking a Russian submarine.
In the ensuing battle, Kane’s father perishes, leading him to seek revenge against Aquaman and ultimately team up with Aquaman’s enemies in Atlantis, equipping himself with deadly Atlantean weaponry in the bargain.
While Manta has relatively brief time on the screen in this first Aquaman adventure, seeing the costume brought to life (it’s always been pretty awesome-looking) and watching Abdul-Mateen II imbue the character with both intensity and empathy is one of the strongest aspects of the movie.
We spoke with the actor recently in Los Angeles about taking the role, learning its history, wearing the gear and more.
Den of Geek: How steeped were you in the mythology of Aquaman and Black Manta?
Yahya Abdul-Mateen II: Oh, I knew absolutely nothing before I got this job. I wasn’t a fan of comics. I would go and I would check out some of the comic book movies. I was always a fan of Batman, but I never really understood that there was a DC Universe and Marvel Universe. I just kind of put all of the movies together and I said, well, there’s Wolverine and all that stuff.
But then, I got a job like this and I said, okay, well, let me look and see exactly what I’ve gotten myself into. And then I started to talk to the fans and read comic books and take their suggestions and understood how important of a position I had found myself in. And then, you learn characters like Black Manta, and then it was just really an honor to step in and take all of those experiences and make that come alive.
He’s top tier for Aquaman villains. He’s been around for 50 years, and I read that you celebrated the 50th anniversary.
Sure, last year, while I was filming.
Once you started looking into it, what do you think makes him stick around for so long and resonate with people?
I think he is simple. I think he’s a character that people also sympathize with. In each of his origin stories, there’s something that’s relatable and something that’s real that people can say, oh, I understand why this guy is not like the other children; or I understand why this guy has a certain vendetta, if you will.
Black Manta’s story is rooted in something very real. Someone just pointed out that Batman also has a story where something happened to his parents and he becomes who he is and things like that. I was like, oh, actually, that’s pretty true. It’s always rooted in something that’s real and that’s relatable for the fans.
(Black Manta) also has one of the coolest costumes of any super villain. How much of what we see is real and did you get to wear the big helmet at any point? So much is CG these days that you never know.
The costume is real, man. The costume is just straight up real. There’s a small portion of it that was special effects. I think with any movie like this, of this scale, you do what you can to enhance at certain moments, but at every stop of the press tour, there’s a costume right there, and that’s the costume that’s fit for me. I wore it, and we put it through a lot of wreckage. The costume took a lot of damage, man.
How does that helmet feel on your head? Is it heavy?
The helmet is not the heavy part. The heavy part are the jet packs on the back. Because they’re actually functional as fans and they have the lights and all the technology inside of it. The helmet is — it looks really cool on the outside, but on the inside it’s not very intuitive, it’s kind of counterintuitive, so it takes a lot of time, test driving and getting the angle of your head right and things like that, but once you get it, you just feel indestructible.
What are your hopes going forward, if we can see Black Manta again at some point in the future, do you have ideas of where you’d like to see him go?
Well, not necessarily where, but I know that in terms of the what, what I’d like to continue to showcase as we roll this character out, I think, I would really like to be able to show his wit. To be able to show his sense of humor, because he’s a guy that, to me, he makes me laugh. I think he’s really funny. And he’s also treacherous, he’s really smart, he’s conniving. And so I think there’s so many more layers and colors to this guy than simply “I want revenge.”
He’s after one thing, but he gets to do it and pursue it in so many different ways that really display that this is a human person with flaws and different types of characteristics and traits, and special things that make the fan really love him.
Aquaman starts in theaters tonight (December 20) with preview screenings and opens wide on Friday (December 21).
Don Kaye is a Los Angeles-based entertainment journalist and associate editor of Den of Geek. Other current and past outlets include Syfy, United Stations Radio Networks, Fandango, MSN, RollingStone.com and many more. Read more of his work here. Follow him on Twitter @donkaye