Black Panther is the highest-rated Marvel Studios film by critics. The themes of the film are powerfully and efficiently woven into the characters and plot. Ryan Coogler is celebrated for his worldbuilding with production designer Hannah Beachler. They spent 10 months weaving real-world African history and culture into a 500-page guide to Wakanda and will likely repeat the process for Black Panther: Wakanda Forever. Namor, Attuma, and Namora will reportedly be joining Coogler’s sequel with Indigenous Mesoamerican cultures as worldbuilding inspiration. All of this might help us speculate what direction the story and characters might take in the highly-anticipated sequel.
Colonization is a theme that is inherently entwined with Wakanda’s history as the animated sequence that opens Black Panther shows. Vibranium enabled Wakanda to defend itself from the horrors of the Atlantic slave trade and the colonization of Africa by European nations. The threat of it intensely affected T’Challa’s perception of his father, T’Chaka, who killed his brother to keep Wakanda hidden. He states that all of his ancestors were wrong to turn their backs on their neighbors. He speaks about interdependence and taking care of others as he rejects isolation to open up Wakanda. The cultural trauma of colonization provides the personal connection to the film’s themes that Coogler has described as bringing him “closer to [his] roots.”
With the MCU’s Atlantis being inspired by Indigenous Mesoamerican cultures it seems likely that these themes will also be present. Rooting Atlantis in the history of an ancient cataclysm could mirror the real-world colonial destruction of Aztec and Maya civilizations. The Yucatan Peninsula’s historical connections to meteorites hint at a hidden society, mirroring Wakanda’s creation legend of a vibranium meteorite. A sunken yet technologically advanced state like that might be of particular interest to the U.S. In Namor’s first comic appearances he wages a war against the “surface-dwellers” (Motion Picture Funnies Weekly Vol 1 #1, 1939 Bill Everett). Yet the cultural-historical inspiration suggests Atlantis will be the state to be discovered and attacked for its resources. Like T’Challa in Black Panther, Prince Namor’s leadership will likely be tested in the face of colonial tension.
Wakanda’s leadership tensions set the stage for more complex explorations of governance. Chadwick Boseman’s tragic passing impacts the sequel in such a way, suggesting Wakanda might use more collective leadership going forward. If Shuri, Nakia, Okoye, and M’Baku can unite in a leaderful way, there may yet be hope against the rising tide of Atlantis. Prince Namor’s leadership in contrast could be challenged as Namora and Attuma have different intentions in their comic histories. Namora, despite being Namor’s cousin, has spent much time away from Atlantis with surface-dwellers. Attuma is a barbaric warlord banished from Atlantis who wants to conquer it. While undiscovered in the MCU, Atlantis’ leadership could be somewhat united, splitting as the world becomes aware of its existence. How these once hidden societies treat outsiders interested in exploiting them will tell us a lot about their leadership.
Much of Black Panther’s plot is driven by outsiders discovering Wakanda. In the case of Erik Killmonger, he uses his “blood right” as T’Challa’s first cousin to challenge for the throne. The question then becomes whether birthright or culture is the maintaining force in bringing people into society. The cultural trauma of America’s exploitative culture which he grew up in, clashes with the more supportive culture of Wakanda. Killmonger sees no future beyond himself, burning the heart-shaped herb, stating “the sun will never set on the Wakandan empire.” By contrast, T’Challa opens Wakanda up with a learning center in Oakland rather than violent empire and colonialism. The consequences of opening Wakanda’s resources, potentially placing them in the scopes of America’s military-industrial complex is an open question.
Similarly, Atlantis might have resources that place them under the spotlight of outsiders to their society. They might even have outsiders within their existing ranks. Conflicting identities play a role in Namor’s life as they did with Killmonger. He is a mutant in the comics and has a mixed heritage from his human father and Atlantean mother. In the film, Namor will likely have to negotiate with elements of Atlantean society that frown upon his human origins. Similarly, Tenoch Huerta who is reportedly playing Namor has Indigenous origins through Purepecha and Nahua heritage. In the comics, when allied with mutantkind, Namor attacks Wakanda with the full weight of the sea. Whether outside incursions from surface-dwellers or aggressive internal factions will compel him to do so in the MCU is unknown.
Cultural trauma, whether it be from historical colonial violence or exclusion leadership policy, is a rich vein for powerful themes. It seems clear Black Panther: Wakanda Forever will continue some themes of the first film in the worldbuilding for Atlantis. Various other comic adaptations could also take this route. A British-Indian Braddock family would organically confront colonial themes, and provide a strikingly powerful Captain Britain. Similarly profound, could be, a Romani writer writing a Scarlet Witch film, introducing a Romani actor playing Victor von Doom. Magneto’s Jewish heritage could be part of a multi-heritage background. It’s exciting to think that Ryan Coogler’s films can act as a blueprint for how themes of cultural trauma are explored across the MCU.