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Namor Isn’t the Real Villain of Black Panther: Wakanda Forever

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Black Panther: Wakanda Forever has been in theaters now for about two weeks where it’s been winning the box office and winning over both fans and critics alike as the follow up to 2016’s Black Panther not only closes out Phase 4 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe but moves forward the Black Panther franchise as well. A major component of both of those aspects of the film is the introduction of Namor (Tenoch Huerta), the leader of Talokan, an undersea nation that just so happens to have Vibranium like Wakanda. In the film, Namor is positioned as a threat to Wakanda and more broadly the rest of the world, but while many are labeling Namor the “villain” of Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, that’s an incorrect assessment.  While Namor is very much an antagonist, the true villain isn’t the leader of the Talokan at all. It’s colonialism and the western world’s desire to exert power and control in the name of resources.

The Idea that the Black Panther franchise would take on the notion that the western world is the problem should be no real surprise. The groundwork for that was already laid in Black Panther. Rather than reveal itself to the world as an advanced and powerful nation, Wakanda had long remained hidden away, presenting itself instead as a poor, farming nation with no resources of interest. The reason for this? The outside world — the largely white western world — would try to take those resources for themselves, doing to Wakanda what nations have done to other African countries for centuries. It’s only when Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) forces T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) to face the hard truths about his own father as well as how Wakanda has abandoned the African people to maintain their own safety that things change and Wakanda makes itself known to the world. It’s an optimistic moment, but one that Black Panther: Wakanda Forever soon reveals didn’t have quite the payoff T’Challa would have hoped.

In Wakanda Forever, in the wake of T’Challa’s death, the western world decides that they want access to Vibranium themselves and try to essentially diplomatically bully Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett) into “sharing”, but when she stands strong, the rest of the world decides they will just take it. The French try to steal it and are thwarted by the Dora Milaje while the United States tries a different tactic: they go hunting for it in the ocean.

While on its face there is nothing wrong with looking for precious resources, the fact that the U.S. is looking for Vibranium covertly and in places other than their own lands and shores is indicative of this idea that it doesn’t matter who the resource might belong to, or the harm done in taking it. If a “powerful” nation wants it, they’ll take it. The U.S. looking for and attempting to drill for Vibranium in the Atlantic Ocean is just a contemporary example of a pattern that has played out repeatedly through history when it comes to indigenous peoples and if you don’t fully get how that connects, the movie makes it even more clear later when Namor tells Shuri (Letitia Wright) his story and we see the history of the Talokan people on screen: the Spanish came centuries ago to Mesoamerica, enslaved the Mayans, took their resources, and brought disease and suffering all while treating the people whose land they were trespassing on poorly.

For Namor, when the U.S.’s actions in the Atlantic are echoes of a story he’s seen before and that prompts Namor and the Talokanil to act, which brings Namor to Ramonda and Shuri. He blames them for making the western world Vibranium hungry and endangering his people and he wants them to fix what they started, in a sense, by handing over the scientist who created the machine that led the government to Talokan’s door. While this certainly sets Namor up for an antagonistic relationship with Wakanda and one could fairly argue that there could have been a more diplomatic approach between Talokan and Wakanda as both nations are feeling the press of the western world and it’s clear in the film that Riri Williams (Dominique Thorne) wasn’t exactly in control of what she designed, Namor is merely reacting to a situation that the western world has forced upon him. He didn’t start the fire, as it were, but he also doesn’t want to see it spread and burn his people.

In a sense, this is something that we see even Wakanda come to recognize late in the film. During the final fight between Shuri and Namor, Shuri has the realization that both she and Namor — and by extension, Wakanda and Talokan — are on similar paths. They have both been the victims of the western world, both historically and in this Vibranium race. It’s what prompts her to offer an alliance and allows Namor to accept it. The two nations need one another so that they can stand side by side to face what is sure to be renewed efforts from the western world — particularly the United States — to acquire Vibranium by whatever means necessary. And we know that is coming because of a line Valentina de Fontaine (Julia Louis-Dreyfus says to Everett Ross (Martin Freeman) when she tells him she dreams of the U.S. having access to Vibranium the way Wakanda does. The quest for Vibranium is the new colonization in the MCU, and it puts two non-white nations at major risk.

To be clear, Namor is very much still responsible for his own actions and choices. Not being the true villain does not exempt him from his actions. The death of Ramonda is still a difficult and shocking event and one that is hard for fans to take without seeing Namor in a negative light — but those choices and actions do not make Namor a villain. It makes him, at worst, an antagonist and at best an anti-hero. His actions are not to do harm for the sake of harm, but to react to genuine threats to the safety of his people. Had the west not been the aggressors in this scenario, Talokan would have remained hidden away.  What will be especially interesting going forward in the MCU is how further films choose to address this. Black Panther: Wakanda Forever already paves the way for Thunderbolts — I’ve written here about how that film could bring the team into conflict with Namor at Valentina’s behest — but only time will tell if the MCU is brave enough to further a narrative that holds a mirror to the too often told tales that present the west as the heroes and everyone else as villains, especially when Wakanda Forever makes it clear that the opposite is, at times, more the truth.

Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is in theaters now.

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