Meet Aquaman’s Secret Weapon: Yahya Abdul-Mateen II as Black Manta

Even as long as people have been making fun of Aquaman for pre-conceived (and patently wrong) faults with his superpowers, there’s always been another thing about him people always remember: his nemesis. Batman has The Joker, Superman has Lex Luthor, and Aquaman has Black Manta. In the upcoming Aquaman movie, the villain makes his live-action big screen debut with actor Yahya Abdul-Mateen II stepping into the full get up. That’s right, the gigantic helmet with the huge red eyes that you know are coming to a theater near you, and I can tell you from having seen the costume my self, it looks incredible.

“Man, that thing is just badass,” Abdul-Mateen tells us on the Australian set of the film. “We have our ideas about what the character’s going to be, so I bring all of that stuff to it but then you put that thing on, and you see yourself in the mirror, and all of a sudden, I’m 10 feet taller in that thing and I feel like I could bust through a wall! I talked about wanting to run through walls, and just break shit in my meeting with Peter (Safran, the producer), when I auditioned for the job. And, I put on that suit, and everything’s just coming full circle.”

“James (Wan, the director) loved Manta from the comic books,” Safran says later. “But then, just designing the actual look of Manta, like taking it from the comic book to the real life….that was just something we spent countless hours on to make incredibly satisfying.”

The first day that Yahya Abdul-Mateen II was on set ended up being picture day because the costume turned out so great and looked so good. Safran even had to take a photo to send to Geoff Johns.

“The e-mail came back all caps, all exclamation marks and he’s like, ‘Holy sh*t, the ribs glow!’ He’s just a great character and we’re having a lot of fun with him and what he does and his evolution throughout the movie.”

“I think like most fans I love the really sort of strange design of Black Manta,” Director James Wan tells us. “I see this guy, and I think what we all love about him is he’s kind of scary and he’s really badass to look at it. But there’s just something kind of slightly off, right? The big giant head, these big two red glowing eyes. So I didn’t want to shy away from that. I’m going to take what’s best about the design, and kind of bring my sensibility to it, and ultimately he’s a human character, and he has to go up against someone like Arthur/Aquaman, who is a superhero. So I have to tweak the outfit slightly to give him the power that he needs to take on to fight Aquaman, but in terms of what he looks like, he’s very much in the same spirit.”

Speaking of that giant head with those big red glowing eyes, how does he even see out of them? The answer is simple, you don’t.

“You can’t see! You just can’t see,” Abdul-Mateen II says with a laugh. “You got a whole 20% vision or something like that. It’s so well-made, but it’s not. It’s made to look good, it’s made to function for me, up to a certain degree, but other than that, the helmet just looks badass. It looks just right.”

When Aquaman begins, Black Manta is at a good place in his life. He’s sailing the seas with his father, riding on high and then the title hero crashes their pirate party and creates an enemy for life. Everything comes crashing down around him after that chance encounter with Aquaman and Manta makes it his mission for the Atlantean to pay.

“It’s Aquaman’s fault!” Abdul-Mateen II says, quoting the mantra for Manta. “He has very little else to live for, and so it becomes that revenge story. You have the relationship between fathers and sons, and the revenge that happens when a son loses his father, and then you have Aquaman, who is the heir to the throne, who doesn’t want to be king, so it’s an epic story.

To get into the character, Abdul-Mateen took to the source material to find the man he would become on set and one moment in particular is the one that illuminated the fundamentals of Black Manta to him.

:I was reading the comic, The Others, and he drove a blade through someone. He murdered someone, and in my experience in comics they’re blowing people up to smithereens, or they’ll use their powers and they’ll shoot you off to the moon and you’ll explode. And he was like, ‘You know, I don’t have time for that. I’m going to take my knife, and I would drive it through you, while telling you that the next thing that I’m going to do is to go murder your family also.’ So, I said, Oh, this guy is… he’s not like the other children.’

Black Manta is the secret weapon for Aquaman. The filmmakers know how awesome he is, they know how cool he looks, and they know the fan anticipation on seeing this big bad come to the big screen will be through the roof. That in mind, they’re going to use him sparingly. Black Manta will be featured in the film, but we were told to expect him to be the “B-Story” of the film, as Aquaman’s relationship with his half-brother Orm will be the main narrative line in the film. But this won’t be some one-off appearance by the villain, DC has plenty more plans for him in the future.

“If Orm is the primary antagonist, then Manta is certainly is a very strong secondary antagonist,” Safran says. “There is a connection between Orm and Manta that will be revealed that that helps make him a more integral part of the story. We certainly have every intention that Manta plays a very large role in the DC universe. He has to. He’s just too great.”

Aquaman will swim into theaters December 21.