Namor the Sub-Mariner is the latest iconic superhero to enter the Marvel Cinematic Universe courtesy of Tenoch Huerta‘s performance in Black Panther: Wakanda Forever. But despite clocking into the MCU in its 30th installment, Namor is actually one of the oldest Marvel superheroes. Created by writer/artist Bill Everett in 1939, Namor debuted in Marvel Comics two years before Joe Simon and Jack Kirby unveiled Captain America.
In the decades since, Namor has been all over the Marvel Universe. After starring in solo comics throughout the ’40s and ’50s, Namor was resurrected in the ’60s by Kirby and Stan Lee as a frenemy for their Fantastic Four. He later spent time as a member of the Avengers, the X-Men, and the Illuminati, although his heart always belongs first and foremost to his undersea kingdom.
Eli Adé/MARVEL; Marvel Tenoch Huerta as Namor in ‘Black Panther: Wakanda Forever’ vs. Namor on the cover of ‘Sub-Mariner’ #1 by artist Michael Turner.
So why is Namor showing up in a Black Panther movie? And why were Marvel fans convinced for years that he would, even before Huerta got the part? That has to do with a writer named Jonathan Hickman, whose 2010s superhero comics have been perennial favorites of Marvel readers, generating no shortage of inspiration for the MCU.
Hickman relaunched the New Avengers series in 2012 alongside artist Steve Epting as a book about the Illuminati, whose lineup included both Namor and Black Panther. Hickman and Epting began this story just months after the conclusion of the Avengers vs. X-Men event, in which Namor’s tenure on the X-Men comes to a climactic close when he acquires part of the Phoenix Force and uses it to flood Wakanda. If you’ve seen the first Black Panther film, you might remember the reclusive nation prides itself on having never been conquered. As a result, the drowning of thousands of its inhabitants is a stunning and traumatic war crime, an attack surviving citizens won’t soon forget.
Steve Epting for Marvel T’Challa confronts Namor in ‘New Avengers’ #2 by writer Jonathan Hickman and artist Steve Epting.
While T’Challa swears to kill Namor to avenge his people, he knows the Illuminati need both their help for the time being. So he puts off his oath of vengeance… giving Namor more time to antagonize Wakanda further. As Hickman’s story unfolds, Namor pushes T’Challa to the breaking point in a way his old villains never could.
Due to real-life tragedy, the story plays out differently on screen. What might Black Panther: Wakanda Forever have looked like if Chadwick Boseman had lived? It is, of course, impossible to say, but Hickman’s story was clearly in director Ryan Coogler‘s mind. In the first Black Panther movie, Boseman’s T’Challa delivers a badass line to Andy Serkis’ Klaue (“every breath you take is mercy from me”) that Hickman originally had the character say to Namor. Also, in the sequel, Namor floods Wakanda in much the same way he does in the comics — albeit armed with water grenades instead of Phoenix power.
Shuri (Letitia Wright) steps up to the plate in Wakanda Forever, taking up the mantle of Black Panther just as she does in the comics. But unlike her counterpart on the page, the MCU Shuri has no interest in the throne, robbing Wakanda Forever of that face-off between two equally-matched rulers that make Hickman’s story feel so epic. At times (such as when Namor gives her a tour of his kingdom), Shuri strongly resembles the Fantastic Four’s Sue Storm as an earth-dwelling female superhero enchanted by the sea king.
Kev Walker for Marvel
The other major difference between Wakanda Forever and its source material is the rewriting of Namor and his people, usually depicted as white in the comics, as Mesoamerican. In the film, the underwater kingdom of Atlantis is renamed Talokan, inspired by Mayan mythology. Coogler recently told EW that he spoke to Boseman about his plans to rewrite Namor’s people as Mesoamerican, saying the late actor was very excited about the possibilities.
The film version of the Wakanda/Talokan conflict has a more tragic resonance as two oppressed peoples war with each other instead of finding common ground. Huerta plays Namor less like an arrogant egomaniac, as he’s often presented in the comics, and more like a loving protector. “Maybe the most important twist in the character is that he’s not a selfish person,” Huerta recently told EW. “He’s taking care of a community. He’s not an individualist. He’s part of a tribe.”
As novel as the changes seem, there is some precedent for the film’s rewriting of Namor and Atlantis. In Everett’s original comics, Namor was a gleeful eco-terrorist who declared war not on “the surface world” (as you might expect an enemy of Aquaman to say) but explicitly on “the white man.” Over time, this aspect of Namor’s motivation seems to have been lost in the comics, partly for technological reasons. Everett colored his protagonist with hues of blue, green, and gray as often as pink/white — but his techniques were innovative, and although the colors look great in modern digital uploads on Marvel Unlimited and similar platforms, at the time, they “were compromised by cheap printing, which muddled everything into a purple sludge,” according to Sean Howe’s Marvel Comics: The Untold Story.
So Namor’s entrance into the MCU calls back to both Hickman’s recent New Avengers epic (which still makes an incredible read, especially considering we’ll never see it replicated exactly on screen) and Everett’s original Sub-Mariner comics (in fact, the Talokan attack on the American naval vessel towards the beginning of Wakanda Forever recalls the character’s very first appearance). It also points to the future — with a new generation of Marvel fans now exposed to Namor as a Mesoamerican character, maybe the comics will incorporate those changes at some point too. On-screen, Namor declares that Talokan is ready to help Wakanda when the Americans come for them — as the still-coalescing team of Thunderbolts surely will at some point.
On top of all of this, Namor is also a mutant, which is why he can fly when no other Atlantean or Talokan can and why he was once a member of the X-Men in the comics. If and when mutants take on a bigger role in the MCU, you can expect to see Namor involved. Talokan forever!