Wakanda Forever (2022) and Representation
Updated: Dec 5, 2022
It’d be an understatement to call Marvel’s latest offering a success. The second Black Panther installation had global box office sales pass $400M in less than a week, along with an 84% critics’ score and a 95% audience score on Rotten Tomatoes. But despite these rare and impressive achievements, I couldn’t help leaving the theater with a bad taste in my mouth. While the film did a great job of centering Black women’s perspectives, it struggled throughout with its portrayal of Mayan people, history and culture, resulting in a product that’s disappointing at best, and regressive at worst. Sadly, the most notable instance of Indigenous Latinx representation in the MCU feeds into a ton of negative stereotypes, which ultimately highlights the shortcomings of representation and identity politics.
The inhabitants of Talokan, an underwater Mayan civilization led by Namor, have always been blue-skinned—but it’s worth noting that they haven’t always been Mayan. In the comics, Atlantis was their domain; but to have stayed faithful to that would’ve put this film in direct conflict with Marvel’s Aquaman, so they created Talokan for the sake of IP consistency. It’s pretty clear this wasn’t thought through in a careful manner, because keeping these characters blue creates a sense of otherness that permeates Talokan, similar to Cameron’s Avatar (2009), resulting in a dehumanized portrayal of indigenous people, highlighting just how much of themselves has been lost via trauma. In fact, the Mayans in this film are portrayed in a way that’d have viewers think they were shaped exclusively by their past sufferings.
Viewers don’t really get to see Talokanos, or Namor, beyond their pain (even Namor’s name comes from the Spanish ‘sin amor,’ which translates to ‘without love’). It was Spanish colonialism that drove these Mayans into the sea, and it’s a fear of future exploitation that makes them threaten to attack if Wakanda alerts Western powers of Talokan’s existence. Colonization is thereby positioned as a central element to these characters. Even their architecture reflects an inability to develop outside the past’s shadow, with set design modeling the submerged metropolis after sites like Tenochtitlán. In this way and so many others, Talokan is shown as being frozen in time.
But surely a country with vibranium, an alien metal useful for technology, would have developed and changed after 500 years—as all cultures do. Failing to take this into account is an erasure of living indigenous communities in Latin America, and results in the film really mishandling Latinx futurity. It’s shockingly offensive to essentialize Latinos’ trauma and say they’re molded merely by what has been done to them. Even Namor’s plan (to attack any threat to his people) is framed within this matrix of paranoia and misery when it’s misrepresented by Wakanda’s Princess Shuri continuously saying he wants to “destroy the [entire] surface world,” then collaborating with the CIA to stop him from doing so. Such issues of agency are present throughout the film.
While Wakanda chose to hide from the world, Talokan was driven into hiding. The inability of the film’s indigenous characters to control their sociopolitical environment is even reflected in the final scene. Many say Wakanda Forever ends on a note of solidarity, but I’d push back on this. Only when Shuri uses the Black Panther’s power to threaten Namor’s life does he choose to relent. While ‘comply or die’ is often the stance of many countries’ diplomacy when it comes to Latin America, one would be hard pressed to call this solidarity, or even a choice. Because of this, the film fails to break the colonial framework of conquest. Namor’s change of heart is so sudden it feels more like a moment where the ‘noble savages’ are shown the error of their ways than anything else. Maybe this has to do with the lack of dialogue given to Talokanos.
In the almost three-hour duration of Wakanda Forever, I’d be shocked if Namor’s people got more than 2 minutes of onscreen dialogue. When they do speak, it’s almost exclusively about war or battle, which carries a ton of historical baggage considering the stereotypes around pre-Hispanic indigenous communities being ‘warlike’ or ‘hyper-aggressive,’ a generalization that’s tangentially tied to the way colonial gazes fetishize contemporary Latin Americans as being ‘intensely passionate.’ This is a really big downfall of the film because, without their voices centered within its bloated runtime, all we see is a bunch of blue people with spears speaking Mayan. If you’re going to break with the canon and invent a fictitious Mayan civilization, then you should obviously adjust the story as needed so that those perspectives are handled with care. The saddest part is, it didn’t have to be this way.
More interesting questions of US and French imperialism are abandoned within the first ten minutes. Instead, Wakanda Forever chose to focus on two non-colonized superpowers fighting one another while a good-guy CIA agent works against his vaguely-bad government. Because of how trauma is essentialized for Talokan’s inhabitants, they’re never developed. We never really hear from them. This speaks to larger questions of representation and identity politics, and whether either is enough within the context of today’s movie-making industry, which is by-and-large controlled by mega-corporations who often consult the military at some level of the production process. Wakanda Forever is just one of many examples where water is carried for these institutions while being masked as progressive. There’s no doubting its cultural impact, but I think it’s a fair critique to say opportunities were missed, and perhaps not all choices in it were the best.