An antiheroic mutant in Marvel Comics, Namor is introduced as the antagonist in Black Panther: Wakanda Forever. Filling in Erik Killmonger's shoes (with winged feet as the second movie's audiences would know), Tenoch Huerta definitely offers one of the best standout performances in Marvel Cinematic Universe's otherwise-chaotic Phase 4.
Marvel is often criticised for one-dimensional antagonists barring exceptions like the aforementioned Killmonger and Thanos. Namor joins the list of the exceptions as director Ryan Coogler gives him the perfect screen debut to explore the character’s grey areas.
How Black Panther 2 builds an immersive underwater world: Leading his race of underwater humanoids, Namor is the protector of the secret civilisation of Talokan. His people call him K’uk’ulkan (which translates to plumed serpent or amazing serpent) but his enemies know him as Namor.
But instead of reducing Talokan to a Graeco-Roman concept of Atlantis, the realm is given its own identity.
If Coogler was tasked with the world-building of Wakanda in the first Black Panther film, he is now tasked with balancing both worlds as he explores a grief-struck Wakanda after King T’Challa’s death, while also introducing viewers to a vibrantly coloured, vibranium-rich Mesoamerican world under the seas. And he arguably succeeds in his approach, providing enough to explore in (hopefully) future movies set in Talokan.
Namor’s character also serves as a portal to Central American mythology and history: Unlike Wakanda’s protector Black Panther (which is a mantle passed on from one monarch to the other), Namor is a literal god who has aided the people of Talokan for years. Coogler and Joe Robert Cole’s screenplay chooses to play around notions of actual Mayan mythology and Latin-American history instead of throwing in any fictional narratives.
The Mayan civilisation which thrived in the Yucatán Peninsula (covering parts of southeastern Mexico, adjacent to Guatemala and Belize) from around 2000 BC to the Spanish conquests in the 17th century, had a wide variety of nature gods that they worshipped and even sacrificed to. A prime example is the feathered serpent god K’uk’ulkan to whom various step pyramid temples were dedicated. Some of them, like the Chichen Itza, are still found in Mexico.
Coming back to his MCU origins, he is depicted as a human infant in the 1500s, who is forced to resort to an underwater kingdom with his people after the European conquistadors start invading their homes. Evolving into a mutant boy and adopting the identity of Namor, he takes his revenge from the colonisers and continues reigning as a god for the centuries to follow.
Tenoch Huerta and his character’s ethnicity is honoured: Given that the MCU falls under Disney, it is worth noting how Coogler manages to make his superhero movies’ socio-political undertones go beyond tokenistic displays. After all, Disney and Marvel are the very same companies that can change a Tibetan sorcerer to a white woman to appease China or debut a Palestinian-opressing Israeli superhero in its upcoming Captain America film!
In the face of this capitalistic “wokeness”, Coogler still seems to be as authentic as he can in creating heroes who are people of colour. Killmonger’s speeches on fighting back against the colonisers and enslavers of his people in the first movie led some observers to even compare him to radical Civil Rights leader Malcolm X (with T’Challa’s relative pacifism evoking the ideas of Martin Luther King Jr).
Throwing in the Spanish history of civilisation destruction, the screenplay adds a sense of legitimacy to Namor’s actions even if he might come off as a supervillain. Now that Wakanda and Talokan’s vibranium deposits become common knowledge in the second film, there are direct jabs at First World countries like the US and France seeking to exploit these worlds, yet again justifying Namor’s ideas of retaliation.
And in another attempt to showcase the ethnic diversity of Wakanda and Talokan, Coogler has arguably made the most multi-lingual Marvel movie to date. Not only are there scenes in the fictional Wakanda language, but even the Talokans get their own native tongue (which does sound like it’s derived from Central American tongues instead of being caricaturish like the Na’vi dialect in James Cameron’s Avatar).
Mexican actor Tenoch Huerta, who has also had American roles in Narcos: Mexico and The Forever Purge among other credits, retains his natural accent even in scenes that require him to speak English. Hence, his performance comes off as effortlessly natural. In fact, while recounting his origins, he even stresses on how the Europeans brought smallpox and an evil tongue, denoting the linguistic hegemony of the so-called First World.
Namor’s steroid-free swimmer body is a fresh change and body-shamers can stay mum: Back when the first teasers of Wakanda Forever dropped, Huerta’s Namor was shown in a backshot of him walking out of water. Some trolls took to social media complaining how Namor should have a more chiselled physique (ignoring the fact that superheroes almost always tend to showcase unrealistic body standards).
Brazilian comic book writer Mike Deodato Jr, who himself has authored several Namor-centric storylines in the past, even posted a nude photograph of himself on Instagram with the caption, “You can tell somebody screwed things up when a character from a movie looks in worst [sic] shape than the 60 years old artist who drew him.”
The 60-year-old writer cheerfully displayed his ripped body but drew backlash from several Marvel fans. Later, Deodato deleted his post and apologised for his comments.
So, Namor’s body might not match the standards of that of Chris Evans (Captain America), Chris Hemsworth (Thor), or even Kumail Nanjiani (who stunned social media with his six-pack transformation in Eternals), but it doesn’t seem to matter for the film’s crew and fans. Coogler is creating his own humanised version of an otherwise extremely powerful god.
And contrary to Deodato’s criticism, Huerta actually displays quite an impressive physique after having physically trained for his role with weight-lifting and swimming sessions. As the usually humble actor remarked on Jimmy Kimmel, he didn’t even know how to swim before playing the marine character!
His overall physique in the film is more lean compared to the bodybuilder-like look of MCU characters like Thor. And it only makes sense given how the character is an expert swimmer. In the end, sculpted abs and veiny muscles are cinematic exaggerations for so-called “alpha male” characters and aren’t the healthiest signs of an athletic body.
Huerta finally breaks typecast and subverts Mexican cliches: Not only is Tenoch Huerta introduced to international audiences with Wakanda Forever, the film also offers him an opportunity to break out from typecast. Breaking out with films like Sin Nombre (in which he played a tattooed gang leader), a large chunk of his filmography included playing people on the other side of the law, in both Mexican and English films and shows.
He plays a prison gang member in Get the Gringo (which stars Mel Gibson who otherwise directed the racially and historically inaccurate Mayan-era action flick Apocalypto). In Bel Canto, he stars alongside Ken Watanabe (a Japanese actor often cast as “the Japanese guy” in Hollywood) as a Colombian rebel who leads his own guerrilla force.
In Escobar: Paradise Lost, he yet again plays an associate of the titular drug kingpin. And talking about drugs, of course, he yet again dons the robes of a criminal in Narcos: Mexico, appearing as real-life drug lord Rafael Caro Quintero.
The “bad guy” trope got so much for him that he even told Vice in a recent interview from June,
Even though he yet again plays a villain as Namor in Wakanda Forever, the role of a god/mutant/leader does seem empowering and different enough to mark a new trajectory in his acting career. And goes without saying, he deserves much, much more from Marvel.