A Questionable Backstory and Worrying Plot Potential
We have to say, we have been hyped for Aquaman since it was announced. The revamp from the blonde haired, blue eyed generic hero to Jason mothereffin’ Momoa was an inspired choice. DC successfully changed the feel of the character and took him from fandom joke to a powerful force to be reckoned with. Now those of us who read the comics know Aquaman is way more than the meme machine the internet thinks he is, and he has some villains that really stand out as dangerous to the entire world.
So when we heard Ocean Master was going to be in the movie, we got hyped. Then we heard Black Manta was going to appear…and we got a little nervous. Now don’t get us wrong — Black Manta has one of the most iconic looks of any Aquaman villain. His pressure-proof dive suit with the red-eyed helmet is pretty much top tier villain stuff. He’s been around since the 60’s causing trouble. However, if you dive into his backstory (even shallowly), you can quickly see why we are a little apprehensive about his appearance.
What’s Wrong With Black Manta?
Black Manta has a backstory that is…how do we say this kindly…problematic. We need to start this off by saying we know that comics aren’t always going to be PC. Part of what makes a villain great is that they do things that make us hate them — which includes some pretty terrible stuff. But handling sensitive subjects in backstory requires a little bit of respect, and we don’t feel Black Manta got that in the comics.
It was revealed that as a child, Black Manta was severely autistic. He was an orphan who the city was unable to understand or help. His outbursts made him unpredictable, so they had him committed to Arkham Asylum — you know, the place they send all of Batman’s worst enemies. Kids should totally be there, right? As a child he had intense tactile sensitivity and bedsheets overstimulated him to the point of pain. When he tried to escape the bed, the attendants simply tied him down (can you say messed up?). Then, in an attempt to make him “better”, they started to experiment on him.
So far we have a child, who is severely autistic and needs understanding, being experimented on against his will in a place designed for hardened criminals. Can you see how this isn’t exactly a respectful handling of an autistic character? Yes, it’s certainly tragic, but it’s not exactly well conceived — and they didn’t stop there.
The experiments “cured” his autism and cleared his thoughts, but they had a side effect: he became incredibly violent and vicious. He killed everyone involved in his “treatment” and escaped to begin his crime and murder spree out in the DC Universe. As far as anyone knows, he went on to make his signature suit himself (and its iconic red-eyed, laser shooting helmet).
Why is this Such a Big Problem?
Okay, let us elaborate a little on why this ruffles us. Autism is a condition that affects about 24.8 million people worldwide. It is an illness that deserves to be treated with respect. When you use it as a reason to lock up a character and then see it as okay to “cure” them, you start to sound pretty insensitive.
Not only that, but autism is feared by a big enough swath of the public that they are afraid to vaccinate their children because it was once suggested that it might give them autism. The theory of vaccines causing autism has been debunked dozens of times (the initial study saying it could was made by a man who was trying to discredit a rival vaccine — and he was disbarred for it). Yet people continue not to vaccinate their children for fear that maybe it could. That fear is causing outbreaks of viruses that were previously almost eradicated, and it really bums us out. This is the world in which DC created Black Manta, knowing the public unease around this condition that already exists.
To then say that “curing” this condition (that people are already afraid of) won’t “fix” the person, but instead make them mentally typical, but dangerously violent — well, you can see why we have a few concerns. Things are hard enough for those with autism; Black Manta doesn’t help people understand the condition or relate to those with it.
You might say, “he’s a villain, you’re not supposed to relate to him.” But the problem is — there aren’t many good examples of autistic characters in comics. If he’s your only point of reference…it’s not a good impression. While we can distinguish between fantasy and reality, the problem is this: some of the information we absorb — fake or not — bleeds over.
What Should We Expect… or Hope for in the Aquaman Movie?
We understand that tragic backstories are a part of comic books. It creates some of the best heroes and some even better villains. But you need to give those stories the respect they deserve. Setting a character up with a very severe condition and then “curing” it in order to make the character more “normal”? It seems pretty disingenuous to the experience of people who have autism. You have to admit, Black Manta’s history is pretty bad.
Now pair all of this with the fact that (depending on your plot line) he murders Aquaman’s infant son. Yeah, they had him murder a toddler. Through suffocation. Or the fact that he and Aquaman murder each other’s fathers in another storyline. We are still trying to figure out which way DC is likely to go in their cinematic universe. They both create a heck of a lot of conflicts, but we really hope that they don’t murder a baby on screen.
They could also try to take a page from the Marvel playbook and emulate Black Panther. It’s possible they will use the plotline where he overthrows an underwater city of pacifists and attempts to make a paradise for African Americans away from the persecution they face on the surface. Which, in and of itself, isn’t a bad plot.
Exploring these themes is what made Black Panther great. But DC has been missing the depth it would need to cover a subject like this. The only film in their series that made a deep emotional impact was Wonder Woman. Justice League had the depth of a kiddy pool (we had such high hopes). DC might not handle this plot with the care it deserves (although we’re HUGE fans of James Wan, and think if anyone can do it, it’s him).
So What Now?
What we are saying is that Black Manta is a really complex character who needs a revamp — badly. There is a danger in bringing him into the cinematic universe, as the themes he represents don’t take into consideration the millions of people who live with autism.
We love Black Manta’s design. Since the 60’s, he’s been one of Aquaman’s greatest nemesis (nemisises? nemisi?), and that gives him a history as one of the Atlantian’s oldest enemies. But we really hope they rewrite his origin for the movie. It’s about time they came up with a backstory that isn’t a shipwreck (we had to do it).
There are plenty of awesome things they could do with such an iconic character. We only hope they stray from his past and make him a villain we can get behind.