With title-character actor Chadwick Boseman dead and the actress playing his sister, Letitia Wright, variously reported to be badly concussed or (for good or ill) obstinately vaccine-averse, it’s a miracle the movie Black Panther: Wakanda Forever exists. Furthermore, it’s better than Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson’s near-simultaneous bland vanity piece Black Adam, which has no such excuses (and which sidelined some of the plans and marketing for the related imminent Shazam sequel, though that film will probably be more entertaining). Wakanda and Adam, out a month apart, each depict an African kingdom with a magical hero-ruler beset by villainous forces from the West.
The first is set in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the second in the DC Universe, and as usual with those two universes, the first is fun even when dealing with dead-serious subject matter, whereas the second is oddly glum even when doing the ostensibly funny parts. Here’s hoping new DCU head honcho James Gunn, a veteran not only of Marvel but of trashy and funny Troma Studios, can inject some fun into the DCU before it’s too late. But at least Black Adam gave long-time DC fans a taste of the Justice Society (the precursor team to the Justice League), so we can solemnly check that off the wish list even if the title character of this film never gets a sequel.
If it’s a sci-fi-like blend of the serious and the surreal you want, you may be better off seeing the new movie Something in the Dirt from the writer/director pair Benson and Moorhead who did the Marvel show Moon Knight. Moon Knight, like the show Legion and the monstrous Demon Bear in the movie New Mutants, took inspiration partly from the sketchy, psychotic-looking Marvel Comics art of Bill Sienkiewicz—and similarly, a Benson/Moorhead horror film usually promises to combine existentialism, trippy-stoner-disorientation, and some mind-warping force such as time travel. Something in the Dirt looks as though it may turn out to be metafictional to boot. Reality takes a beating in movies and TV these days.
In Wakanda Forever, though, it’s Marvel print canon and Greek legend that take beatings. Specifically, the villain/antihero Namor, the Sub-Mariner is here transformed from the king of Atlantis to the king of the analogous Latin American undersea kingdom of Tlalocan (as it is usually transliterated from the Aztec). Maybe neither ever existed. Or maybe they are two legends derived from the same historical flood events. Or maybe Plato’s tale of the Atlantis near Greece was really a description of Mauritania in Africa, in which case you’d think an Africa-set Black Panther franchise could’ve saved itself the trip across the ocean. (Perhaps these issues will be explored in Graham Hancock’s Netflix documentary series on alternative-archaeology theories called Ancient Apocalypse.)
In any case, this reimagining of Namor, which may be the most interesting thing about the movie besides Boseman’s absence, effectively pits a magical army of violent warrior Latinos against a magical army of violent warrior blacks, which to my amazement seems, like the prior film in the series, not to have offended anyone so far. It’s seen as progress—or perhaps I should say “Excelsior!” And if the Greeks feel shafted by having Namor stolen from them, they haven’t made much noise about it. The Greeks aren’t marginal enough to worry about, I guess.
All of this is a fair reinterpretation of the character/land, I’d say, especially given the need for Marvel to distinguish this film from the big DC hit Aquaman from a few years ago, he also being king of Atlantis. It’s likewise in keeping with the spirit of the original comics that Namor’s pigheaded and bellicose in an ancient-world way, to the point of being terrifying. There’s sometimes a thin line between self-assertion by a marginal population and outright fascism (see: Spike Lee’s Malcolm X, Janet Jackson’s “Rhythm Nation” video, the valorization of a slave-taking tribe in Woman King, Chappelle’s recent SNL monologue), but even Hollywood can occasionally find a natural-seeming balance between the two.
One strange side effect of transposing Namor—with his flight-enabling tiny ankle-wings seeming at least as plausible as an Aztec mystical flourish here as ever they did in the comics as a Greek nod to fleet-footed Hermes—onto Latin America is that we are told Namor’s likened by his people to “Kukulkan, the Feathered Serpent” a.k.a. Aztec god Quetzalcoatl, who also happens to be a Satan-like serpentine presence in many a conspiracy theory in recent decades, some rooted in “lost civilization” tales.
Since Marvel’s World War II precursor team to the Avengers, called the Invaders, included Capt. America (a blond super-soldier), the Human Torch (the robot version), and Namor (now equated to Quetzalcoatl), these films could easily build to the revelation that the Allies all along were run by a three-part coalition of fascists, A.I., and reptilian gods. Marvel could be mining some weird cultural material here—but then, so are real Latin Americans.
Nearly 30 years ago, a friend and I visited a left-wing group’s evening discussion, and their guest speakers were colleagues of Mexican anarchists, which led to them explaining with slight embarrassment that some Mexican anarchists are sympathetic to Nazis and skinheads—in part because some believe ancient Mexican legends about the Aztecs being a sort of master race guided by gods from outer space, which among other things gives them the right to retake the American southwest, seeing it as not only formerly part of Mexico (no argument there) but also formerly part of a legendary ocean-faring civilization called Aztlan (which purportedly had Tlalocan as its capital).
Again, maybe it’s all bunk, but I have to admit that civilization name sounds oddly familiar. In the Marvel comics, the alien-spawned characters called the Inhumans also lived, centuries ago, on the similar-sounding island of Attilan, but I’ve no idea if that’ll be worked into future films or TV shows. Given the low ratings of Marvel’s short-lived Inhumans TV show, probably not.
In the meantime, if you want to see a more serious, realistic look at navigating inter-cultural waters, the actor who plays Namor, Tenoch Huerta, can also be found playing a butterfly researcher trying to balance his rural Central American upbringing and life as a scientist in New York City in the film Son of Monarchs(coproduced by libertarians I know, lest everyone think we’ve all become border wall enthusiasts).
And speaking of strange water-adjacent pop culture figures, I mistakenly said in a column a few months ago that the band Wet Leg is from the Isle of Man, but they are of course from the Isle of Wight—a name which sounds oddly like yet another fanciful ethnic enclave, perhaps fodder for a future Marvel film featuring Captain Britain.