With Black Panther, Ruth E. Carter broke the mold for superhero costumes, and 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's now 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, Midnight Angels, Riri, M'Baku — and everybody was going underwater. The Talokanils, that in itself was such a challenge, because I had so much to learn about the Mayan culture. I had so much to learn about costumes in water. We were facing one deadline after the next."
In Wakanda Forever, the once-safeguarded nation of Wakanda faces outside threats following the death of King T'Challa (the late Chadwick Boseman). One such danger arrives on its shores from Talokan, an undersea kingdom descended from ancient 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: 16th century post-classic Yucatan Namor the Sub-Mariner, he's fabulous!" she adds. "It was wonderful to bring a Mexican superhero to fruition."
"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."
Designing costumes for a superhero movie always requires certain allowances, whether for stunt work, certain CGI elements, or what have you. On Wakanda Forever, the fact that much of the movie's action takes place underwater proved to be Carter's biggest learning curve.
"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! Then, there was so much story within story, and layer within layer, and historical fact within historical fact, and fantasy that was inspired by the anchor of the history. So, when I saw the movie, I felt like I was under siege. I was sitting in my chair just on this ride. You didn't want to be sitting next to me!"
Carter's next project will surely be less waterlogged though no shorter a task, as she confirms that she is remaining in the Marvel sandbox to work on Blade, the studio's new take on the vampire hunter starring two-time Oscar winner Mahershala Ali. What has she learned on Black Panther that will prove invaluable as she ventures onward in the MCU?
"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 can 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."