Namor makes his debut in Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, but was he worth the wait?

The highly anticipated Black Panther: Wakanda Forever finally arrived this past weekend, becoming an instant critical and commercial hit right off the bat. Wakanda Forever received positive reviews, with critics praising its emotional impact and significance after Chadwick Boseman’s tragic passing. Some criticism was aimed at the story and third act, but even the film’s few detractors agree that Wakanda Forever has a shining star in Tenoch Huerta’s antagonistic Namor.

Although many mainstream viewers might not be familiar with him, Namor has been around since the Golden Age of Comic Books. We’re not talking ’60s or even ’50s here, but 1939, when Namor the Submariner debuted as one of Timely Comics’ — the predecessor to Marvel Comics — leading figures alongside Captain America and the original Human Torch. With a rich yet convoluted story throughout decades of semi-continuous history, Namor has been a hero, a villain, and everything in between.

Marvel Studios’ Black Panther: Wakanda Forever | Namor

He’s sometimes a cool and suave antihero who makes Sue Storm’s knees weak; other times, he’s a short-tempered and raging conqueror seeking revenge for any perceived slight. Through it all, Namor remains a fascinating and compelling figure, the first-ever antihero in the comic book genre and one of the figures that built Marvel, quite literally.

Wakanda Forever presents a heavily adapted version of Namor, though. The kingdom of Atlantis becomes the Mayan-inspired Talokan and Namor, the descendant of a Mexican tribe. It’s an inspired pair of choices that successfully distance Namor from other aquatic superheroes from Atlantis, as well as a major step forward in representation. Huerta, born in the infamous and much-derided Mexican municipality of Ecatepec, is the first major indigenous Latino antagonist in any comic book movie, playing, ostensibly, one of the most powerful characters in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

For better or worse, we live in the age of comic book movies. These projects dictate the direction of the pop culture conversation, shaping it and, therefore, us as witnesses and consumers. Yet, the Latino community has been sidelined for years in the comic book genre — and things are even bleaker for indigenous people. At first sight, Huerta’s casting as such a crucial figure in the most successful film franchise of all time seems to be a massive win for Latinos and especially indigenous Latinos everywhere. But is this really the kind of representation we need? Is a character like Namor the right way to introduce and, in many ways, act as a stand-in for the Latino community within the massive Marvel machine?

Hell yes.

About damn time

Attuma, Namor, and Namora with other Talokans in the poster for Black Panther: Wakanda Forever.

What makes Wakanda Forever‘s Namor such an effective character? For starters, he looks cool. The cover is just as important as the book — ask any writer — and Academy Award winner Ruth Carter and her team do a beautiful job portraying and honoring Namor’s heritage with his striking and detailed costumes.

Yes, the overall product is a bit on-the-nose, Hollywood’s idea of how Mesoamerican cultures should’ve looked, but it still works within the film’s context. Namor’s headdress, in particular, is a powerful callback to the ones worn by Mesoamerican leaders, warriors, and priests and a meaningful reminder of the cultural wealth of this once mighty region.

Then there’s the character’s regality. Namor is a king through and through, not a soldier, although he is a great warrior, or a politician, despite being a clever strategist. He is a king who knows his place and acts according to his station. And although he is playing a villainous role, Namor is a refreshing new take on a Latino bad guy. Not a henchman or underling but a capable leader who commands respect and caution of the most powerful nation in the world. Not a criminal, thief, or drug dealer acting as the ultimate embodiment of corruption, but a firm and decisive ruler in an understandable and, dare we say it, righteous mission to empower his people.

Furthermore, Namor is not evil for the sake of it. He wants vengeance and control, but his desires are on par with the larger themes of the Black Panther franchise. The first film is among the all-time best superhero movies because of how successfully and intelligently it blended social commentary with spectacle.

Wakanda Forever tones down the social commentary to focus on the grief over T’Challa’s death, but it’s impossible not to see some real-life similarities between Namor’s ambitions for retribution, supremacy, and autonomy and the mindsets of millions of indigenous people in Latin America. Say what you will about his motives — Wakanda Forever goes for the uninspired them-against-us trope — but Namor’s dedication to his people is inspiring.

Finally, there’s Namor’s place within the MCU. Many will hate him, particularly hardcore Black Panther fans, for his actions during the film. However, it’s undeniable that Namor is a powerful threat and, arguably, the MCU’s only genuine antihero. Unlike Loki, Bucky, and even Zemo, who were considerably MCU-fied in subsequent appearances, Namor remains dangerous and unpredictable, at least for now.

He kills, conquers, and destroys without remorse but is not heartless or cruel. He is a pragmatist, a man on a mission with a purpose for which he’s truly willing to burn the world; how many of those does the MCU have? Namor is unique, a one-of-a-kind figure in a franchise famous for its overwhelming homogeneity.

Not perfect, but pretty close

Namor descending to his throne in the underwater city of Talokan in Black Panther: Wakanda Forever.

It’d be too much to expect perfection from Wakanda Forever‘s Namor, but any of the character’s faults lie squarely on the film’s choices and not Huerta’s performance. In fact, Huerta elevates the already great material to new heights, crafting a modulated yet threatening performance that remains engaging and surprisingly charming.

However, Wakanda Forever‘s choice to present Namor as Kukulkan is somewhat misguided. It’s always strange when comic book movies try to pass their characters as the basis for mythological deities — I dare say no film that tries to do this ever succeeds. Wakanda Forever wisely never claims Namor is Kukulkan embodied, thus avoiding bastardizing the myth in favor of entertainment, but the mere mention of it opens a can of worms that would be best left untouched.

Talokan is also severely unrealized and underutilized. I wholly understand this is a film about Wakanda first and foremost, but the promise of the underwater Talokan came up short when all we got was a couple of rushed and barely realized scenes and a kingdom that looked more generic than the Midnight Angel armor. And it’s such a missed opportunity, especially considering the detail that went into creating, say, the costumes for Namor, Namora, and Attuma. There’s a real sense of culture there, an attention to detail that makes these people look and feel like a real civilization. None of that is present in the Talokan scenes, which were more forgettable than Thor: The Dark World.

Lastly, there’s the whole issue of inconsistency within the MCU. If Namor is so fiercely protective of his people, why the hell didn’t he do anything during the blip? Was he also dusted? What about the events of Eternals and the massive petrified Celestial that’s literally coming out of the ocean?

As the MCU continues its seemingly neverending expansion, these things become more blatant and distracting. Admittedly, only overly attached fans of the franchise (me) will take issue with these apparent slights. However, the MCU takes great pride in its long, continuous storytelling, so it’s pretty egregious that they’re so willing to gloss over these details for the sake of carrying on at any cost.

What comes next

Tenoch Huerta Mejía holds a spear as Namor in Black Panther: Wakanda Forever.

Wakanda Forever makes sure to keep Namor around for what will surely be several future appearances throughout the Multiverse Saga and beyond. Namor will most likely reappear either in a third Black Panther movie or the upcoming Fantastic Four film. And what about the eventual X-Men film? He is a mutant, after all. Whatever the truth, the important part is that he is returning.

And it is important, vital even that he returns, not only because of what he means for the MCU but what he represents for the indigenous Latino community and Latin Americans as a whole. It is often said representation matters, but just how much? Can we really say an antagonistic character in a superhero film can make a difference? In short, yes. The world sees Latinos a certain way, and Hollywood is more than happy to put us in specific boxes and call it a night; Indigenous Latinos have it worse, seldom making it to the screen as more than barely-realized ideas. Characters like Namor defy conventions, expectations, and stereotypes by shining a light on the unseen potential and power lurking beneath someone’s brown skin.

More importantly, someone like Namor will provoke a conversation. Tenoch Huerta is an outspoken critic of the overwhelming racist attitudes still prevalent in Mexico today. Having him as the Latin American face of the MCU means taking the ugly issues we, as Latinos, want to ignore and bringing them to the forefront. It means discussing these issues because God knows Tenoch won’t stay quiet.

It means tearing down barriers others put up, but that we contributed to maintaining and even strengthening. More importantly, it means owning up to our choices and realizing that our neglect and mistreatment of indigenous Latinos and idealization of certain foreign tropes, attitudes, and ideas has shaped our worldviews and behaviors to our ultimate detriment.

How wonderful these walls are finally coming down in the year of our Lord 2022. And how wonderful a character like Namor exists to prove that Latinos can be more than one thing: heroes, villains, warriors, or even kings. And how wonderful that one of the most powerful characters in the world’s most successful franchise is an indigenous Latino man of Mayan heritage. We don’t have enough of those if you ask me.

Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is currently in theaters nationwide.

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