Editor’s Note: The following contains minor spoilers about “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever.”
In “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever,” the aquatic adversary known as Namor wastes no time establishing himself as one of those beguiling but strange characters that can polarize an audience: the ocean-dwelling deity uses conch shells like smartphones and has feathered wings on his ankles.
But as portrayed by Mexican actor Tenoch Huerta Mejía in this brooding follow up to 2018’s “Black Panther,” Namor also commands considerable gravitas as the amphibious leader of an underwater tribe, and deserves more than just the inevitable comparisons he will receive to his DC counterpart, Aquaman. (CNN, DC Films and Warner Bros, which produced “Aquaman,” are part of the same parent company, Warner Bros. Discovery.)
Historically, DC predates Marvel with almost all of its legacy characters in the pages of the comic books that made them famous: Superman (1938) came well before Iron Man (1963), Batman (1939) before Moon Knight (1975), Wonder Woman (1941) before Captain Marvel (1968), and so on. It’s the ultimate of ironies that Namor is only appearing in the Marvel Cinematic Universe now, since he is one of the few Marvel Comics characters to have come first.
Also known as the Sub-Mariner, Namor first appeared in comics in 1939, while DC’s Aquaman debuted in 1941. Of course, on the big screen, the opposite is true: DC managed to beat Marvel to the punch in the realm of underwater superheroes, releasing “Aquaman” in 2018 and introducing the character played by Jason Momoa in “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” two years before that. What’s more, “Aquaman” remains one of DC’s biggest hits: the movie has made over $335 million over its lifetime, according to Box Office Mojo, with a sequel on the way next year.
Marvel and “Wakanda Forever” director Ryan Coogler therefore had their work cut out for them to ensure Namor and his world created a wow factor, while also diverging enough from what had been done before, namely in “Aquaman.” And to the new film’s credit, it appears as though much if not all of the sequences showing the underwater kingdom of Talokan — with citizens playing waterlogged ballgames and hanging around on benches — utilizes actual underwater photography and divers, as opposed to CGI.
In Mejía — who is billed as being “introduced” in “Wakanda Forever,” despite over 70 credits in Mexican cinema spanning 15 years as well as last year’s “The Forever Purge” — Marvel thankfully has found its own dynamic anchor to this new underwater world. The character’s menacing presence and intimidation is tempered only by the vulnerability, even torture, in his expression, adding yet another element that differs from the quirky and tongue-in-cheek nature of Momoa’s aquatic superhero.
“Black Panther: Wakanda Forever,” also had the daunting task of presenting Namor’s origins in a way that swam clear of those seen in “Aquaman,” and of doing it a movie not meant to operate solely as an origin story.
Both Namor and Aquaman claim the mythic Atlantis as their points of origin in their respective comic book source material — and DC already used Atlantis as their setting for “Aquaman” four years ago — so there was a ripe opportunity to change things up when it came to Namor’s backstory in “Wakanda Forever.” The change comes by way of Talokan, Namor’s home kingdom, which is inspired by Mesoamerican, Indigenous Central and South American mythology. The switch to this Mayan and Aztec-based setting allows the movie to explore histories of colonization that are much more rooted in reality, similar to how the original “Black Panther” touched on Africa’s historical struggle with colonizers, as well.
Arguably, the most notable deviation from Namor’s comics origin comes in a reveal made in the film: the aquatic superbeing seems to be the result of a tribal ritual using a mystical herb, much like how the Black Panther is manifested. (Aquaman, meanwhile, draws his superpowers from one parent of royal Atlantean heritage.) But then, the movie goes even further — on the eve of Phase V of the MCU’s grandmaster plan, Namor utters in no uncertain terms that he is “a mutant,” a clear siren call of things to come, with the mutant X-Men — previously inhabiting a separate 20th Century Fox franchise — soon to be incorporated into the MCU fold.
But before that happens, and thanks to Mejía’s nuanced performance in “Wakanda Forever,” Namor should be able to avoid many more comparisons to other oceanic demigods, and ride his own wave into the future.