WAKANDA FOREVER Shows How the MCU Should Handle the X-Men

Black Panther: Wakanda Forever has radically expanded the potential of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Its presentation of Namor the Sub-Mariner proves that it is ready for the X-Men. Though Namor isn’t the first mutant to appear in the MCU, his particular condition as a Meso-American survivor of Spanish imperialism speaks to the core themes of the X-Men comics. And since Black Panther: Wakanda Forever depicts the complexities of liberation amidst the threat of imperialism, it is the perfect vessel to pilot what the MCU’s X-Men can offer. 

On the left, Tenoch Huerta in Black Panther: Wakanda Forever. On the right, several characters from the cover of Giant Size X-Men #1.

Wakanda Forever follows Princess Shuri and Queen Ramonda as they grieve the loss of King T’Challa. At the same time, their country is in a tense era of international politics, as countries like the United States and France are suspicious of their supply of vibranium. This comes to a head when a covert American operation to find more vibranium threatens the underwater kingdom of Talokan. Its leader, Namor, vows to destroy the surface world to prevent the continued genocide of his people. It then must fall on Shuri to choose if Wakanda’s fate lies with Talokan, or the rest of the world.

Beyond just having Namor, a mutant, in the film, Wakanda Forever beautifully sets up what an X-Men movie could look like in the MCU through its handling of political topics. This is primarily achieved through its reenvisioning of Namor’s identity. Namor has explicitly been non-white in the comics, vocally declaring a vendetta against all white men from the very beginning. However, his arched eyebrows and racially-ambiguous appearance never pointed to a specific human culture he had ancestry from. 

Namor in golden armor
Marvel Studios

Wakanda Forever takes a much firmer stance. It rewrites his comics origin by making him the protector of an Indigenous community in the Yucatan. Known to his people as K’uk’ulkan, the Sub-Mariner got the name “Namor” when a Spanish missionary called him “el niño sin amor.” Thus, Namor’s Indigenous background is an integral part of his character in the MCU. Beyond the fact that Tenoch Huerta, an Indigenous actor, plays Namor, his politics, anxieties, and hopes for his people stem from his experiences with Spanish imperialism. 

This characterization of Namor is significant, because it echoes the principles that have guided X-Men comics for nearly 50 years now. While the X-Men had been around in Marvel Comics since 1963, they were revolutionized in the mid-1970s. Beginning with 1975’s Giant-Size X-Men #1 by Len Wein and Dave Cockrum, and continuing through writer Chris Claremont’s legendary X-Men and New Mutants runs, the X-Men focused heavily on the unique ethnic and cultural backgrounds of its characters.

The cover of 1975's Giant Size X-Men #1
Marvel Comics

Previously, the team had been largely white American. However, with the introduction of mutants from around the world like Storm (of Kenyan descent), Colossus (Russian), and Nightcrawler (a Catholic from Germany), in addition to Indigenous mutants like Thunderbird (Apache), the X-Men found their footing with a more diverse cast. While the cast of Giant-Size X-Men may not seem as diverse by 2022 standards, it was revolutionary at the time to feature Russian and German characters who weren’t villains. 

By approaching Marvel’s Merry Mutants through a culturally-conscious lens, X-Men comics tied mutant identity to contemporary political issues. Since mutations either manifested from birth, or later in life in response to extreme stress, they came to reflect unique problems faced by marginalized groups. For instance, New Mutants member Karma (Xi’an Coy Manh) gained her ability to possess people during the Vietnam War. She took control of a North Vietnamese soldier who was about to kill her younger brother. For many X-Men characters, their mutant identities and marginalized identities are deeply entwined. By grounding mutants within the lived experiences of people from around the world, Claremont’s X-Men illustrated how mutant identity was not monolithic. 

Magneto returing to villain status in X-Men #1.
Marvel Comics

And yet, this straightforward handling of Namor’s cultural background is something the X-Men films have largely shied away from. With the exception of Magneto, a Jewish Holocaust survivor, the X-Men films left out the comics’ emphasis on cultural specificity. Banshee, an Irish mutant whose wife died in Northern Ireland during the Troubles, was American in X-Men: First Class. More troublingly, Sunspot, an Afro-Brazilian mutant who got his powers while defending himself from anti-Black racism, has never been played by an Afro-Brazilian actor. Beyond just whitewashing, the omission of these characters’ identities also omits their political perspectives as mutants. Thus, the discourse in the Fox films is limited by a white American sense of homogeny. 

A still from the 2000 X-Men movie shows Charles Xavier, Storm, Cyclops, and Wolverine outside of Cerebro
Twentieth Century Studios

As such, the MCU should use Wakanda Forever’s vision of Namor as the basis for assembling its X-Men cast. Fox’s X-Men films went astray when they stopped exploring the complexities in the fight for liberation. This is the essential drama of the comics, and the essential drama of Wakanda Forever. Magneto may be a standout character, as a radical militant Holocaust survivor, but he’s so much better when he’s in the company of other mutants whose identities enrich the metaphor. By taking a culturally-conscious route, the MCU’s X-Men can embody the comics’ most radical idea. A diverse group of marginalized people can lead the world to a better place, without flattening out the differences between them. 

Overall, Wakanda Forever proves that the MCU can handle topics like imperialism and genocide in a setting that is both fantastical and politically engaged. These elements are also the core of Marvel’s current era of X-Men comics. The radical reimagining of Namor proves the MCU has the capacity to fully commit to the cultural specificities guiding X-Men. But more than that, it can truly thrive when it embraces complexity over uniformity.

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