Namor is the latest character to join the Marvel Cinematic Universe with Black Panther: Wakanda Forever. And his arrival heralds a change in the type of characters that Marvel Studios chooses to spotlight. Known in the comics as the half-human ruler of Atlantis, Namor the Sub-Mariner occupies a unique place in the Marvel universe. It is certainly one that Wakanda Forever takes advantage of, giving Namor an air of untouchability that separates him from Marvel’s street-level heroes. Namor’s Atlantean background is different in the MCU; however, his new origin story hints at how the MCU will present characters in the future. By emphasizing Namor’s power as a mythological being, Wakanda Forever affirms that speculative storytelling is the way of its future.
Black Panther: Wakanda Forever follows the late King T’Challa’s sister, Shuri, and her mother, Queen Ramonda. They, along with the nation of Wakanda, try to heal from their family’s losses in a rapidly changing world. Wakanda Forever details the country’s new place in geopolitics after T’Challa’s decision to reveal their technological innovation to the world. Western powers like the United States and France want nothing more than to plunder Wakanda’s vibranium.
These outsiders even have covert missions to try to locate sources of the precious metal around the world. But when Namor and the vibranium-rich kingdom of Talokan strike back against these Western powers, Shuri and Ramonda must make a choice. They will either join him or remain isolated for their own protection. And, through Shuri’s interactions with him, we uncover the full scope of his mythological background—one that informs the story in a fresh way.
One of the most distinctive aspects about Marvel Comics and the Marvel Cinematic Universe is its emphasis on the folk over the mythic. Many parts of the superhero genre are rooted in classical archetypes; however, Marvel Comics’ emphasis on character relatability has driven its success for the past sixty years. It is the foundation for why everyman heroes like Spider-Man have become such pop culture juggernauts.
Audiences can better imagine themselves in outlandish fantasy settings when the characters seem plucked from everyday life. This has only been accelerated by the success of the MCU. Even Thor, a Norse god, can be a bro playing Fortnite in his sweats. And the MCU’s more far-fetched teams like Guardians of the Galaxy still feature grounded elements. Its cybernetically-enhanced raccoon has a voice like Joe Pesci and its half-human leader is bad at dancing.
And yet, 2021’s Eternals saw the MCU moving towards a more mythic tone with characters who are firmly god-like. Rather than being your next door neighbor, the Eternals are the basis for the oldest and most persistent myths in human history. The collective wonders if their love for humanity, with all of its flaws, can overcome their cosmic programming. These are problems no ordinary human would ever have to think about. But relatability should never be the primary metric for a story’s effectiveness. Eternals remains a divisive film between critics, fans of the comics, and MCU fans, precisely because its perspective is quite different from other films in the franchise. However, Wakanda Forever shows that this shift will continue to take the MCU to new heights.
By introducing Namor, the MCU doubles down on its commitment to mythic elements. It’s a decision that will test whether or not the franchise can thrive without underhanded reliability at its core. Mythic characters are significant not just because they contrast the humanity of folk heroes like Spider-Man. They are also vital because they are built on possibility, rather than plausibility. Whether or not a mutant like Namor could exist is negligible in the world of the MCU. Mythic stories are more concerned with exploring the limits of possibility, rather than explaining their inner logic. As such, it’s not an accident that a mythic character like Namor appears in Wakanda Forever. He echoes the spirit of possibility that Black Panther: Wakanda Forever’s characters and world are guided by.
The decision to create a new kingdom for Namor based in Mayan culture is a sign of how the MCU will continue to approach mythic stories. As Namor explains in the film, Talokan was born out of the atrocities of Spanish imperialism. Its formation was a last-ditch effort by his people to save themselves from the diseases that the Spanish had brought. Thus, Talokan’s secrecy is how Namor protects his people from genocide. His whispered, rumored status in the surface world isn’t just an aesthetic exercise or a facet of his personality. It’s an illustration of how the mythic as an idea can be reimagined as an anti-imperialist tool.
As such, between Wakanda Forever and Eternals, the MCU is using mythic characters to illustrate the weight of collective problems that go beyond asking your crush to the homecoming dance. For many people, the greatest threat imaginable isn’t a purple alien with a cosmic glove. It is the pervasive reality of state-sanctioned imperialism.
The MCU has been enormously successful because of its relatable characters. But the realms of possibility put forth by Namor in Wakanda Forever set a new bar for how the MCU can reinvent itself in the future. If the MCU is to remain fresh, it must require its fans to choose possibility over plausibility. If this continues, the combination of myth and the MCU might lead to its best era yet.