When one thinks of DC comics superhero Aquaman, Shakespeare might not be the first thought that comes to mind. But weaving the classic Hamlet through the plot of the upcoming Aquaman movie is exactly what Director James Wan (Saw, Furious 7) has done.
In the first big screen film to feature the ocean-protecting champion who can communicate with sea creatures, breathe underwater, and possess superhuman strength, the father-son relationship that villain David Kane aka Black Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) has with his father Jesse (Michael Beach) drives much of the action in Aquaman. Black Manta blames Aquaman for his father’s death which fuels his hatred of him and his motivation to assist super villain Orm (Patrick Wilson) in destroying Aquaman.
Mateen, who was born in New Orleans and moved to Oakland as an adolescent, wasn’t a huge comic book or superhero fan growing up, except for Batman. “ I would go and see all the Batman movies, but for some reason, I never really associated that with the comic book at all," he tells Shadow and Act. "I just think of Batman as a figure from my childhood.” The young Mateen was drawn to the story of the conflict of good vs. evil that was the ubiquitous backdrop for Batman stories. “I liked that Batman was a story about good guys and bad guys, you know, it was really just that fundamental structure.”
Mateen is perhaps best known for his role as Cadillac in Baz Luhrmann's Netflix series The Get Down. Going into Aquaman, he says he originally wanted to have a different backstory for Black Manta than was eventually settled on. Canonically, the comic book character has several backstories and Mateen was initially very intrigued with the one that characterized Black Manta as autistic. “I was really hoping,” he says, “That I would see some of the backstory about the autism because I thought that that would be a good opportunity for representation and a lot of opportunities as far as acting.” Wan and writer David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick (The Walking Dead) decided to focus on the father-son dynamic.
As an actor, Mateen came to find that choice just as satisfying. He explains, “They eventually went with the fathers and sons story. There is a whole lot to act and to bring to the table with that story. In the end, I was happy that they did give me something real to latch onto that I could play out.”
Historically in America, media depictions of Black fatherhood have been complicated and often perceived as negative. Asked if he felt the love his character had for his father might particularly resonate with Black male viewers because of this, he replied, “I think it’s a story that reads more on a universal theme, of fathers and sons and the connection between fathers and sons. But if anybody were to look at this and were to be able to take away a positive to see that relationship in regards to Black fatherhood or the relationships between Black fathers and sons, that's something that I think is only a plus.”
Yahya Abdul Mateen in a scene from "Aquaman". Photo Warner Bros.
Though it's not the first time in the past year that a superhero vehicle has used the universal themes of revenge and family dynamics as a lynchpin for a story--Black Panther’s Killmonger was also driven by a desire to avenge himself and his murdered father against his family members who abandoned him--Black Manta's story is one that resonated with Mateeen.
After his father’s untimely passing when Mateen was just 21 years old, he set off on his own life-altering journey. He'd graduated with a degree in Architecture from the University of California at Berkeley and was working as a city planner at the time. The death of his father spurred his decision to finally pursue acting. The decision sent Mateen across the country where he studied at famed Yale School of Drama. It’s a choice he believes his dad, with whom he was very close, would have ultimately supported.
“I think at first he would have been surprised and then he would have been supportive. All of my family is supportive of every artistic or career decision that I made. So, I think that he would have wanted me to be happy," he says. To "'Go forward, work hard, and put God first.'”
He's carried this advice with him as he chooses which roles to play, including Black Manta, whom he says he never judged as a bad guy.
“I never viewed him as a villain,” he explains. “I think my job is to make him interesting and to make him more well rounded. The script gave me the opportunity to root him in something that was real, and that was relatable. So, you know, my goal going in was to make people actually root for Black Manta and make him more of a complex hero or an antihero. He doesn’t have goals of taking over the world. He isn’t intent on world domination. He just wants revenge.”
Still, Mateen wouldn’t be too quick to take him on in real life. “I would be smart enough not to know not to give advice to David Kane,” he jokes. “I’d be smart enough not to get into enabling him in any way.”