With Black Panther, Ruth E. Carter broke the mold of what superhero costumes could be, and she made history doing so: She became the first Black costume designer to win the Oscar for Best Costume Design. Though her influence has been felt throughout Marvel's cinematic universe since that film, she officially returned for Black Panther: Wakanda Forever. "It was exciting to think that we could actually come back to together with new ideas for Wakanda," says Carter. "And also, a little scary!"
"Because the first one was such a big hit, you always think there's the sophomore jinx," she admits to A.frame. "The whole idea of recreating something that now lives within the zeitgeist of the whole wide world, can we do this again? It was challenging to even think about."
On the first film, Carter paired her expertise in cultural anthropology with an Afrofuturistic vision, blending traditional details of the African diaspora with cutting edge technology to create garments unlike anything seen on-screen before, along with a superhero suit fit for a king. Four words guided her approach to the 2018 film: Beautiful, positive, forward, and colorful. For the sequel, Carter says, "I didn't even have time to inspire in the same ways that I did on the first one."
"We had more to do, four times as much! We introduced nine different superheroes," she says, attempting to lists them on her fingers: "Namor, Namora, Attuma, Riri, Lord M'Baku, the Midnight Angels. The whole [Wakandan] Navy was new — and everybody was going underwater. The Talokanils" — new characters introduced into the franchise as ancient inhabitants of an underwater kingdom — "were such a challenge, because I had so much to learn about the Mayan culture. I had so much to learn about costumes in water. And we were facing one deadline after the next."
In Wakanda Forever, the once-safeguarded nation of Wakanda faces outside threats following the death of its king, T'Challa (the late Chadwick Boseman). One such danger arrives on its shores from Talokan, a submerged nation descended from ancient Aztec and Mayan civilizations, and its ruler, Namor (played by Tenoch Huerta). Bringing Namor to the screen required Carter to fuse the same level of historical research she's done on films like Malcolm X and Amistad with the fact that, in the comics, Namor the Sub-Mariner wears little more than green bikini briefs.
"'What was Tenoch's approach to that?' is what you want to ask," deadpans Carter when asked about her approach to remaining faithful to the comics, "because he had to get that body right! We Zoomed with him in Mexico, and we sent a bunch of Speedos there — all different kinds of bathing suit trunks — and I was like, 'Try on all of these, see which one looks good.' And none of them did. So, we were like, 'We'll make him a pair.' And we did. We were very intentional about the length of the shorts. 'A half inch up, or half inch down.' We were very intentional about where the belt hit. We don't want any muffin tops. We want to make sure that belt hits right. And it worked."
"I thought he was sexy. I thought he was historic. He's the oldest Marvel superhero and we gave him one of the oldest stories in Mayan culture. This is 16th century post-classic Yucatan Namor the Sub-Mariner," she adds. "He's fabulous! And it was wonderful to bring a Mexican superhero to fruition."
"There was so much story within story, and layer within layer, and historical fact within historical fact. It's fantasy that was inspired by the anchor of the history."
When Carter did Amistad in 1997, she consulted the ship's actual cargo manifest and extrapolated what the clothing would have looked like. For 2016's Roots, she researched the cottage industry dedicated to dressing slaves, basing her costumes on the text and lived accounts. Her work in the Marvel Cinematic Universe is no less rooted in fact. Take, for instance, the sequence in which Shuri (Letitia Wright) is taken captive by Namor and brought to Talokan, where she is presented with a ceremonial gown.
"What does Shuri wear when she's captured? What do they give her? They give her this beautiful thing that represents their culture," Carter explains. Inspired by Mesoamerican archaeology, architecture, artifacts and paintings, the ensemble is a white silk robe, because she found Mayans used a lot of sheer fabric. An elaborate neckpiece of jade and pink beads, a collaboration with Dutch couturier Iris Van Herpen, took inspiration from Mayan vases depicting their rules. "There was so much story within story, and layer within layer, and historical fact within historical fact," she says. "It's fantasy that was inspired by the anchor of the history."
Designing costumes for a superhero movie always requires certain allowances, whether for stunt work or CG elements that will be added in post. On Wakanda Forever, Carter's biggest learning curve proved to be the fact that much of the movie's action takes place underwater.
"Everything floats up!" she exclaims. "You want things to be balletic and, 'Oh, when I put it in the water, the water is just going to do its thing and it's going to be beautiful!' Instead, it was like this" — her arms go straight upward — "and that's what you get. We had to learn how to weigh things in different ways. And even the things we put in water that were successful, when they came out, they were ruined! So, we had to make them all over again. It was quite a lot!"
All considered, Carter estimates that Wakanda Forever features more than 2,000 unique costumes. That required working with ateliers and artists in New York, Los Angeles, Paris, India and New Zealand, as well as overseeing custom pieces from brands like Adidas and Hervé Léger. She employed a small army of craftspeople to sew, and dye, and age, and tailor, and five in-house 3D printers used to create the ornate headpieces worn by Angela Bassett's Queen Ramonda, as well as numerous duplicates of many of the costume elements. ("In this world of Marvel, which includes battles and stunt doubles, one is none.") And then, there was the task of reconceiving an entirely new take on the Black Panther suit, adorned with gold and silver vibranium details, that is eventually donned by the newly-anointed princess Shuri.
"When I saw the movie, I felt like I was under siege!" she laughs. "I was sitting in my chair, just on this ride. You didn't want to be sitting next to me!"
The end result is nothing short of awe-inspiring, and merited Carter's fourth Oscar nomination for Best Costume Design. "I'm proud to be amongst this incredible group of nominees, especially my fellow Wakanda Forever colleagues," she said. (Black Panther: Wakanda Forever received five nominations in total.) "I feel very honored that my peers recognized the heart and soul put into the texture of storytelling."
Though Carter's next project will surely be less waterlogged, it will be no shorter a task: Blade, Marvel's new take on the franchise, starring two-time Oscar winner Mahershala Ali as the iconic vampire hunter.
"I like to think that I don't do typical Marvel movies," Carter says. "And I hope that they think of me in that way — that I think outside the box on these Marvel films, and also bring in some Marvel. There is a world-building that I have been able to do, which has, I think, shown another side to their filmmaking desires. You know, I built a world with Malcolm X, I built a world with Amistad, and I've been lucky enough to get the Black Panther franchise twice and show that we can build a world in Wakanda and make it feel real for people."
By John Boone
This article was originally published on Nov. 10, 2022 and has been updated throughout.