Nadya Martinez / Nov 26 2022,
BLACK PANTHER: WAKANDA FOREVER SCORES BIGGEST NOVEMBER OPENING EVER
“Wakanda Forever” respectfully honors Chadwick Boseman while giving a Indigenous people a voice.
Black Panther director, Ryan Coogler, delivers again with his exceptional attention to detail and ingenious take on Marvels’ anti-hero Namor in the sequel. From his dynamic vision of recreating Namor’s origin to his exploration of themes of Indigenous Latin cultures, Wakanda Forever is an innovative and refreshing take on superhero lore. The latest film in Phase 4 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe was not only an awe-inspiring commemoration, but a beautiful celebration of rich culture, diversity and inclusion.
Audiences worldwide felt the emotional impact of the film’s remembrance of the late Chadwick Boseman and his groundbreaking legacy. The movie is essentially about the process of grief, and transitioning after losing a loved one. In the film we find King T’Challa’s (Boseman) family and nation grieving after the sudden and tragic loss of their beloved king, which hit’s too close to home as you can feel the genuine heartache from the cast losing Boseman to cancer.
In Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, T’Challa is gone and Wakanda is left vulnerable as the world is now aware of its precious resource, vibranium. T’Challa’s mother, Queen Romonda (Angela Bassett) has assumed the throne temporarily while Wakanda tries to rebuild itself after the loss of King T’Challa. Queen Romonda, along with T’Challa’s sister Shuri, M’Baku, Okoye and the Dora Milaje are left to fight and protect their nation from a mysterious new threat, the mythical and powerful Namor and his secluded underwater kingdom.
As it turns out, Wakanda isn’t the only place with vibranium, but the secretive and powerful underwater city of Talokan which has stayed undetected for centuries is now at risk due to a vibranium detector. While T’Challa wanted to share Wakanda’s resources with the world, the underwater ruler Namor aka K’uk’ulkan (Feathered Serpent) wants to remain completely hidden from outsiders.
Coogler effectively reimagined the Marvel character Namor — The Sub-Mariner, portrayed by Mexican actor Tenoch Huerta (Narcos: Mexico and Sons of Monarchs), for his live-adaptation debut and it makes perfect sense. The silver-screen version of Namor reigns over Talokan, a Mesoamerican-inspired underwater civilization, instead of the original legendary city of Atlantis. Coogler, along with a team of advisors, built their own universe within the bigger conglomerate of the Marvel Cinematic Universe while still paying respect to the source material and its characters.
Who is Namor?
King Namor McKenzie, also known as the Sub-Mariner, debuted in Marvel comics in 1939 as the ruler of Atlantis. Born as a mutant-hybrid son of a human sea captain and an Atlantean princess, he has superior strength, swimming skills and can fly, making him a worthy adversary. Namor is very protective of his ocean realm and has great disdain for other civilizations that contaminate and destroy the ocean. Namor is not a villain, but a complex and determined anti-hero that fights for what benefits him and his citizens of Atlantis. This puts him at odds with heroes such as The Avengers despite being an occasional ally. Coogler along with co-writer Joe Robert Cole wanted to portray Namor and his morality just right.
While the comics version of Atlantis has some influences of Greek mythology, Wakanda Forever drew from a different source for its interpretation of the sunken city — Mesoamerica. The historic region of Mesoamerica comprises the modern day countries of northern Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, Belize, and central to southern Mexico. For thousands of years, this area was populated by groups such as the Olmec, Zapotec, Maya, Toltec and Aztec peoples.
Coogler has mentioned in multiple interviews that Namor was always part of the sequel and that Boseman was a big collaborator on what Namor should represent in terms of Indigenous representation. Fairly early in the process, the idea of building his origin around Mesoamerican influences was already decided. Overcoming grief after the tragic loss, the film had massive 200-page rewrites. Coogler still wanted to maintain the scope of the film and still pay tribute to Boseman, who had already approved of the new Submariner-inspired Atlantis before his passing. Coogler also explained how he wanted to ensure that the Meso influences remained authentic.
The Black Panther Films do an exceptional job of using real cultures for inspiration.
The first Black Panther movie wowed audiences with its beautiful visuals, authentic and carefully curated adaptation of Wakanda. The first film meticulously drew inspiration from real African cultures while creating the wealthy and technologically advanced nation of Wakanda, and also paying homage to the concepts originally created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in the comics. Ryan Coogler wanted Wakanda to look and feel authentic, so he called on Academy Award-winning production designer Hannah Beachler to craft the cinematic world of Wakanda. They traveled around Africa researching cultures, scouting locations and collecting ideas, taking note of the architecture, clothing, food, transportation and ways of life.
Coogler, partnering again with Beachler and costume designer Ruth E. Carter, who won an Academy Award for her work on the first Black Panther film, successfully built another intricate world with the underwater civilization of Talokan, which adds dimension to the ever growing MCU. Beachler spent two years building the film’s underwater world, working closely with Carter, Coogler and Maya historians to faithfully reflect its Mesoamerican influences.
Similar to the first film, Wakanda Forever displays heavy thematic elements of colonialism, culture, traditions and isolationism. Based on the mythical Aztec paradise Tlālōcān, the film has decided to change the MCU character Namor’s (Tenoch Huerta) comic book lore from him being the Prince of Atlantis to the ruler of Talokan. Tlālōcān is described in several Aztec codices as a paradise, ruled over by the rain deity Tlāloc and his consort Chalchiuhtlicue. Tlālōcān is said to be a place where those who die from lightning or drowning rest in paradise, and Tlālōc, the rain deity, governs the palace.
Bringing the Comic Book Anti-hero To Life
It was imperative for Coogler to differentiate Namor from DC Comics’ Aquaman, and also focus on developing the Talokan “Atlanteans” roots and culture being more dimensional than just underwater beings, but still respecting the characters origins.
Although the aquatic villain has been a prominent figure in Marvel comics for years, due to rights disputes and other more marketable villains, Namor never hit the big screen until recently. According to an interview with Uproxx, Coogler was thrilled to bring the character to life, and credits Jason Momoa’s performance as Aquaman in the DC universe, proving that there was a major market for underwater comic book characters. “We wanted to lean into the things that make those two characters different from each other because they have a lot of other similarities in publishing.”
Coogler and co-writer Joe Robert Cole, wanted to pay homage to the comics and focus on retaining qualities of the character such as prominent features and his loyalty to his people. Although Namor himself has a new look, Huerta retains the comic book character’s signature short shorts, winged ankles and pointed ears.
“He hasn’t been represented in film or television yet. It was like, okay, so what are the things about him that are consistent? He’s got wings on his ankles, he’s got dark hair, he can fly. He’s really strong. He’s very arrogant.
For us, it was like, Yo, you got to wear the green trunks. He’s got to have his winged ankles. He’s got to be relatively arrogant. He has to be long-lived. He’s got to be a child of two worlds, not really fitting into either one. He has to be very confident and very dangerous. In the comics, Namor can always back up what he’s saying.”
Casting the right actor for Namor was crucial. Not only did the filmmakers want to base the Tolokanian culture on classic Mayan civilizations but an actor that could portray these stories. Coogler interviewed a lot of actors of Mesoamerican descent, but Huerta stood out from his terrifying performance in “Sin Nombre” by his friend Cary Fukunaga from the Sundance Directors Lab. Huerta not only had the right intensity but he can be sympathetic and charismatic. According to Coogler, “He was playful and has a conscious point of view about racial politics in his home state of Mexico. So it just felt right in our conversations, that he was the guy.” And now he’ll be played by a Mexican actor, one of the few including Salma Hayek (Eternals) to appear in a major role in a Marvel movie.
“Most Mexicans, we have some Indigenous heritage,” Huerta says in an interview with Men’s Health. “We have Indigenous blood in our veins.” Yet colorism still ran rampant in Mexican media. “It was almost impossible to see brown people in Mexican television, movies, commercials.”
Huerta explained, aware that there aren’t many superheroes who look like us, know our stories, or are part of our communities.
While much smaller in the world, Mayan descendants and communities still exist; Coogler wanted to ensure that this culture was respected. The Mayan consultant on the film, Gerardo Aldana, a professor and director of Repository for Archaeological and Ethnographic Collections at the University of California-Santa Barbara, was very instrumental in making the film’s representation of Meso cultures feel authentic. He’s also an anthropologist who published several books about Mayans, more importantly about Mayans during that time.
Focusing on Mesoamerican mythology allowed the MCU to not only put an original spin on the fictional lost city, but connect it closely with its Mesoamerican cast. This film means so much in terms of Indigenous representation, Latino empowerment and cultural appreciation. Huerta has even commented on what it means to be the MCU’s new ruler of Talokan, saying that taking up this mantle has huge resonance as, “part of my personal heritage, as a Mexican, and as an inhabitant of Mesoamerica.” He adds, “Namor loves his people, and he’s gonna protect them because to be a ruler you have to serve the people.” Playing Namor, Huerta feels that, “Finally [he] could find a more powerful representation of [his] culture, with dignity and respect.”
The actors of Latin descent were required to learn Mayan. In addition to Huerta (who learned to speak the Mayan language for his role), other Talokan cast members included Mexican actress Mabel Cadena as Namor’s cousin Namora, and Venezuelan actor Alex Livinalli as the warrior Attuma.
“To me, it’s crazy because I can find in the movie the little things from my Mexican culture,” Cadena tells Gizmodo. “And if you hear the Mayan language, it’s like, ‘Oh my God, can you believe we have representation for the first time in a movie like this?’”
The film drew inspiration from the rich culture and iconography of ancient Mesoamerican civilizations to visualize how the underwater city untouched by colonialism would prosper. “We’re imagining a community that’s anchored to its own Indigenous past,” says the film’s costume designer, Ruth E. Carter who created a series of intricate feathered headdresses for the Talokan ruler. Namor’s most impressive headdress alludes to a name bestowed upon him by his people — “the feathered serpent.”
As M’Baku, the leader of the Jabari Tribe pointed out, “His people do not call him general or king. They call him Ku’ku’lkán. The feathered serpent god.” The nickname comes directly from Kukulcan (pron. Koo-kool-kan) the name of a feathered serpent god in the mythology and religion of Mesoamerica, in particular, the Yucatec Maya. He is also identified as the feathered serpent god Quetzalcóatl by the Toltecs and Aztecs, as Gucumatz to the Quiché Maya of Guatemala, and Ehecatl, the wind god of the Huastecs of the Gulf Coast. Kukulcan and his other manifestations are all unified by the belief that each was considered a creator god and a bringer of rain and winds.
“We were inspired by all of the pageantry that you see in Mesoamerican history,” Ruth E. Carter tells Men’s Health. “There are these vases that they painted to depict figures in headdresses and all kinds of clothing that I used to inspire the clothing of the Talokan.” The team worked with historians and experts on Mayan culture to decide which cultures to draw from. Carter and her team used a lot of kelp to make his headdress and hand-woven cape. They also added jade, shells, beads and other aquatic elements to channel underwater creatures.
“And so we looked at beautiful sculptures of different scenes depicting the lifestyle of post-classic Yucatán, and the feathered-serpent figures were the ones that were the most powerful looking.” The headdress weighed “about ten pounds,” and a version with wireworks had to be built to allow mobility in scenes where Huerta has it on while maneuvering 20 feet underwater.
Ryan Coogler’s reinvention of Atlantis as Talokan was an entirely new perspective on the lost underwater civilization. There have been so many different interpretations and depictions of Atlantis (Plato’s Atlantis) in the media, but Coogler wanted to give viewers something entirely different. What really makes Talokan stand out is its beautiful, advanced rich culture without any outside influence. Although Wakanda and Talokan are fictional, the African and Latin American cultures they are inspired by are very real. Wakanda Forever is an incredible opportunity for Hollywood to feature groups that are often marginalized in these stories.