The sequel to the 2018 Marvel blockbuster features a Maya-inspired antihero played by Mexican actor Tenoch Huerta
In Marvel lore, Namor the Sub-Mariner, the half-human, half-merman ruler of the underwater kingdom Atlantis, is neither straightforward villain nor hero. An unwavering defender of his people, the aquatic antihero was one of the entertainment company’s first characters, appearing in 1939’s Marvel Comics #1 alongside the Human Torch and the unmasked detective Angel. Stainless Steel Fountain
In the decades since his debut, Namor has alternatively battled and teamed up with some of Marvel’s most beloved superheroes, from Captain America to T’Challa (better known as Black Panther). Now, he’s making his live-action debut in Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, the highly anticipated sequel to the 2018's Black Panther.
Portrayed by Mexican actor Tenoch Huerta, the silver-screen version of Namor has a reimagined backstory, reigning over Talokan, a Mesoamerican-inspired underwater civilization, instead of the legendary Atlantis. Much like T’Challa’s home of Wakanda, Talokan is a small, secretive, yet powerful kingdom. But while T’Challa opened Wakanda to the rest of the world at the end of Black Panther, Namor remains steadfast in his desire to keep Talokan hidden from outsiders.
“Maybe the most important twist in the character is that he’s not a selfish person,” Huerta tells Entertainment Weekly. “[Namor is] taking care of a community. He’s not an individualist. He’s part of a tribe.”
In the comics, Namor is the mutant son of a human explorer and an Atlantean princess. Endowed with superior strength and swimming skills, he can also fly, making him a worthy adversary. He bears great resentment toward terrestrial civilizations that contaminate his ocean realm (among them the Nazis, whom the antihero fights in several World War II-era comics).
Kurly Tlapoyawa, an archaeologist, author and ethnohistorian who studies Mesoamerican civilizations, says Namor has always been depicted differently from the rest of Marvel’s largely Eurocentric character lineup. His sleek, dark hair, widow’s peak and pointy ears offer visual cues that he is a “nonwhite character,” Tlapoyawa adds.
Growing up, Tlapoyawa, who is an Indigenous Chicano of Nawa descent, found Namor’s “otherness” relatable. The character’s fierce commitment to his people, rather than an ideology or the pursuit of power, led the young Tlapoyawa to view Namor as heroic, loyal and even romantic.
“When you look at his motivation in the comic books,” the scholar says, “it was always about how [he could] protect his people. His loyalty was to his character, and that made him interesting.”
Wakanda Forever’s Namor adheres to a similar code of ethics. “Here is a man who believes 100 percent that he is the hero in his own story,” says producer Nate Moore in a statement. “He doesn’t see himself as a villain, because in Namor’s eyes, what he is doing he’s doing to protect a people who have already made it through a tragic history.” (In the comics, Atlantis sinks below the sea following the Great Cataclysm, a disaster unleashed by the Celestials, a race of cosmic beings featured in the 2021 Marvel film Eternals; in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, or MCU, Talokan starts out as an underwater shelter for Indigenous people seeking refuge from Spanish colonization.)
While the comic versions of Namor and Atlantis take their cue from Greek mythology, Wakanda Forever draws on a different source of inspiration: Mesoamerica, a historic region spanning modern-day Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, Belize, El Salvador, Nicaragua and Costa Rica. Mesoamerican Indigenous groups include the Maya, the Olmec, the Aztecs (or Mexica), and the Toltec.
One of the biggest changes to Namor’s MCU story is his kingdom’s rebranding as Talokan, a name likely derived from “Tlālōcān,” an Aztec paradise overseen by the rain god Tlāloc. Namor himself also has a new look, though Huerta retains the comic book character’s signature skimpy shorts, winged ankles and pointed ears.
Costume designer Ruth E. Carter, who won an Academy Award for her work on the first Black Panther film, created a series of intricate feathered headdresses for the Talokan ruler. “We were inspired by all of the pageantry that you see in Mesoamerican history,” she 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.” Carter and her colleagues added jade, kelp and other aquatic elements to the headdresses in order to channel underwater creatures like lionfish and sharks.
Namor’s most impressive headdress alludes to a name bestowed upon him by his people. As M’Baku, leader of the Wakandan Jabari Tribe, explains in the new film’s trailer, “His people do not call him general or king. They call him Ku’ku’lkán. The feathered serpent god.” The moniker comes directly from the Maya, who worshipped a god of the same name and form. To the Aztecs, this feathered serpent deity was more commonly known as Quetzalcóatl.
“We worked with historians who were experts on [Maya] culture to learn about what part of the trajectory of the ancient Mesoamerica area we would draw from,” Carter tells Men’s Health. “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 legend of Atlantis, an advanced civilization supposedly lost beneath the waves thousands of years ago, first appeared in a Platonic parable around 360 B.C.E. In the Greek philosopher’s telling, Atlantis’ half-god, half-human founders wielded immense power and riches that corrupted their character, leading them to lose the favor of the gods and fall in battle to the superior Athenians. As punishment for the Atlanteans’ greed and immorality, the gods sent fires and earthquakes to submerge their home.
For centuries, few believed Atlantis was anything more than the fictitious subject of a morality tale. Then, in 1882, Ignatius L. Donnelly, a former congressman from Minnesota, published a book titled Atlantis: The Antediluvian World. In it, the fringe politician argued that Atlantis was a real civilization that passed its knowledge on to later cultures, including the Maya and the Egyptians. This version of events, says Tlapoyawa, looked overwhelmingly like the story of colonialism, in which white Europeans supposedly “civilized” the rest of the world.
By attributing the Maya’s advancements to another civilization, Donnelly and writers who followed in his footsteps suggested that “Indigenous people were [not] smart enough to develop ideas on their own,” Tlapoyawa tells Inverse. John W. Hoopes, an anthropologist at the University of Kansas, adds, “It’s impossible to separate the story of Atlantis from myths of white supremacy.”
When Tlapoyawa learned that Namor would be portrayed as a Mesoamerican character, he “heard alarms go off.” He adds, “That association with Atlantis has a long history that’s rooted in racism. So the concern [was] how much is [the film] going to play into that.”
Director Ryan Coogler frames Atlantis’ reinvention as Talokan as a way of offering audiences a new perspective on the lost civilization. “There have been a lot of representations and creative depictions of Atlantis based off of Plato’s Atlantis, the Greco-Roman concept of a city sunk into the sea. That idea exists in a lot of different ways,” he tells Inverse. “We wanted our film to exist alongside those movies and be different. It was really out of respect to the audience, not wanting to give them something similar to other things that have come before it.”
Production designer Hannah Beachler spent two years building the film’s underwater world, working closely with Carter, Coogler and Maya historians to faithfully reflect its Mesoamerican influences. Still, however closely Wakanda Forever hews to Mesoamerican tradition, the fact remains that it’s a superhero movie about two fictional civilizations. “It’s not a documentary film,” Tlapoyawa says. “There’s only so much that can be grounded in reality.” For him, how thoughtfully the film represents Mesoamerican identity is more important than how closely it sticks to the actual history.
Hoopes criticizes Wakanda Forever’s blending of elements from different Mesoamerican cultures—for instance, the Aztec paradise Tlālōcān and the Maya serpent god Ku’ku’lkán. “It’s too late [for the filmmakers] to be careful,” he says. This conflation of cultures “results in misconceptions and stereotypes about people’s real ancestors. … Is there such a thing as a generic European? It’s like confusing China, Japan, Korea and Vietnam, or worse, generic Africans or Native people.”
In addition to Huerta (who learned to speak the Mayan language for his role), Wakanda Forever’s Talokan cast includes 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?’”
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Tlapoyawa lauds the film’s Indigenous representation and casting, particularly that of 41-year-old Huerta, who is an outspoken critic of racism in his home country of Mexico. Yet the archaeologist remains fearful that Wakanda Forever could play into inaccurate, dangerous stereotypes about Indigenous peoples, whom he says are “taught to be ashamed” of themselves by a society grappling with the legacy of colonialism.
“If you dress Indigenous, you speak your language [and] you live in your community, you’re punished for that,” Tlapoyawa says.
Poorly presented pop culture depictions “can have a negative impact on how [viewers] see Maya people,” Tlapoyawa adds. On the flip side, “a movie like Wakanda Forever has the opportunity to really help young [Indigenous] kids say, ‘We’re not ignorant, we’re not lazy, we’re not stupid,’ the way that society tells us we are.”
While Wakanda and Talokan are fictional, the African and Latin American cultures they represent are very real. How these cultures are “depicted in a movie that’s going to be a global phenomenon,” Tlapoyawa says, will have a tangible effect on how they’re perceived by the public.
Despite his concerns about Wakanda Forever, Tlapoyawa is excited for the film’s release and Namor’s debut. He views the project as an incredible opportunity for Hollywood to “do its homework” and feature groups that are so often marginalized in these types of stories.
“I’m glad Mesoamerica is being included,” he says. “I want [the movie] to be a success. And I want Huerta to be a global superstar.”
Nili Blanck is a writer based in Mexico City.