After winning an Oscar for the rich, pan-African designs she created for the people of Wakanda in “Black Panther,” costume designer Ruth Carter faced a new challenge for the sequel “Wakanda Forever”: the immortal aquatic warriors of Talokan.
While Carter could lean on the lore bible that she had developed with director Ryan Coogler and the rest of the film’s crew to create the new outfits for the Wakandans — like the all-white attire worn at T’Challa’s funeral — building the world of the film’s antagonist, Namor, required building an entirely new lore bible built from hundreds of hours of research into Mayan history and the marine biology of the Yucatan Peninsula.
“We really did have to rely on historians when making that bible, because when making the Wakandan bible we really wanted to build out the entire history of the country and what it was doing at different times in European history,” Carter said.
As Carter and Coogler envisioned it, Talokan would be an undersea version of the Mayan empire prior to the arrival of the conquistadors, hermetically sealed from the centuries of human history that happened after the Mayans’ fall, but still developing its own civilizational wonders thanks to the same Vibranium that Wakanda used to build its Afrofuturist utopia. Carter and the production design team led by Oscar winner Hannah Beachler used the real-life Mayans use of jade as the basis for Talokan’s version of Vibranium, which can be found all over the outfits Namor’s soldiers wear.
“We were able to use kelp and bones and pieces of jade to create the finer details of the Talokanese look. Just as the Mayans would use the natural items from their surroundings in their clothing, we imagined that Talokan would use the plants and shells and fish bones from the ocean floor throughout their culture, ” said Carter.
Another big difference between Wakanda and Talokan is that while only the Black Panther has superpowers, everyone in Talokan is born with mutant abilities. Namor may be the only one who can fly, but every soldier in his army has superior strength and the ability to breathe underwater thanks to the Vibranium-infused plants that the civilization’s first generation ate to escape the conquistadors.
But when they fight on the surface world, they are required to wear facemasks filled with water to allow them to breathe while their skin turns an almost Na’vi-esque blue. Carter played into that unique skin tone when designing their battle uniforms, using green and brown to contrast with the blue skin while creating exotic headdresses from lionfish spines, shark bones and fish scales that would stand out even in the darkly lit underwater scenes in the halls of Namor’s palace.
“There were a lot of costumes that were designed without the knowledge of how exactly they were going to be seen on camera,” Carter said. “We used molds of shark fins and rope and things like octopus legs that they could use like suction cups to hold on to the whales as they are riding them.”
Amidst the intense battles between Namor’s army and the Dora Milaje and Shuri’s swooping tour of Talokan with Namor, those details may be lost when Marvel fans first see it in theaters. But Carter hopes that they will provide a deeper glimpse into Talokan’s culture and history upon repeat viewings.
“As a designer, you never know exactly how much the audience is going to see, but I always want it to be there just in case the camera gets a good view of it,” she said.