“That movie was amazing,” I told my husband just after we’d finished seeing Captain America: The Winter Soldier. It took me a minute or two — long enough for us to walk out to our car — to pinpoint just why the movie made me so giddy, but when I did, I proclaimed with an even bigger grin that this was the first live-action superhero movie I’d ever seen in which I didn’t have a single problem with the portrayals of women.
I knew Matt would appreciate this, since he’s had to listen to my frequent rants about the limited roles usually given to women in superhero films — either the powerless damsel love interest who exists to keep the hero “grounded” and to need rescuing at appropriate moments, or the femme fatale whom the hero must resist and then vanquish. I might have enjoyed any number of superhero movies, from 1978’s classic Superman (which ignited a crush on Christopher Reeve that lasted for years) to Thor: Ragnarok, but I’d always had at least one complaint about the women in the story. Even my beloved Peggy Carter was, sadly, a Smurfette. So after seeing Black Widow and Agents Maria Hill and Sharon Carter all kick butt at different points in the film (with Black Widow getting one of the best scenes — “Did I step on your moment?”), I let it be known that Captain America: The Winter Soldier was my favorite live-action superhero movie.
For quite a while it maintained that status. None of the subsequent films of the Marvel Cinematic Universe reached The Winter Soldier‘s level when it came to female characters, and I found some of them to be big fat “feminist fails,” particularly Thor: The Dark World (the one where the love interest falls into a coma and has to be carried around for half the movie) and Doctor Strange (the one where not one single female wizard is left alive at the end). It took Wonder Woman to compromise The Winter Soldier‘s standing as my favorite. At any rate, it remained my favorite Marvel live-action superhero movie.
Until this past Monday — when Black Panther pole-vaulted over it.
Many of the things I love about it have already been examined at length by others. (I especially love the take by Tor.com’s Liz Bourke.) But I offer my own observations nonetheless, and if they prove repetitive, I’ll just have to live with that.
T’Challa’s first adventure sets the tone. We first see T’Challa, the Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) and his right hand, Okoye (Danai Gurira), general of the all-female Dora Milaje warriors, in the midst of a mission. They mean to “get Nakia out,” and we’re led to think “Nakia” must be someone in need of rescue; that’s what we’ve seen, after all, in countless superhero movies heretofore. T’Challa and Okoye banter as he prepares, and their dialogue establishes them as friends who value and trust each other. He says he’s going into the fray alone. She doesn’t argue but simply says, “Don’t freeze.” And he’s off.
Then we see Nakia (Lupita N’yongo) herself, in the back of a truck alongside of a throng of frightened young female captives. She might seem to blend in with this desperate group, but for something distinct in her eyes — a sharpness, an awareness. She’s waiting for her moment. When Black Panther arrives and goes into action, we think that moment has come, as she throws off her distressed-damsel disguise and reveals herself as a skilled fighter. Yet when the battle is over, Okoye having descended to save T’Challa with a couple of well-executed spear moves (because “you froze”), we learn that Nakia was actually on a rescue mission of her own and is far from happy that T’Challa compromised her. Crucial character attributes are established in this early sequence — T’Challa’s courage and sense of responsibility and lingering feelings for Nakia, Nakia’s idealism and wider-ranging views, and Okoye’s tough badassery combined with her sly, understated sense of humor. It made me want to follow them wherever they might go.
Erik Killmonger’s first appearance also gives us a clear idea of whom we’re dealing with. Killmonger has been touted as Marvel’s most interesting villain since Loki in the Thor films. I concur, and not only because Michael B. Jordan brings so much charisma to the table. He’s an angry young man who has every reason to be angry. He wants to seize T’Challa’s homeland of Wakanda and its “vibranium” (a comic book mineral also responsible for Captain America’s shield) and use them to fight against injustice. In the long run, he ends up being a catalyst for positive change, though not in the way he intended; he awakens an isolationist nation from its long sleep. Yet for all that, he’s still a villain, as we see clearly when, in his first scene, he poisons a British museum docent so he can steal an ancient Wakandan weapon and make his getaway. He may have some bitterness towards her for being one of the “colonizers,” but first and foremost she’s collateral damage — a concept which, as I’ve mentioned before, a true hero never accepts. Killmonger might make some valid points about justice, but we see at once that he’s the wrong person to administer it.
The story’s coolest character actually IS female! T’Challa’s younger sister Shuri — scientist, engineer, inventor, healer, and bringer of much sass — is already a hit with fans; plenty of them, including my husband, don’t hesitate to name her as a favorite. And why not? She gets all the best lines! Letitia Wright invests her with such humor and distinct individuality that she’s evaded the accusations of “Mary Sue” usually leveled at a female character who is awesome at so many things. Audiences just accept her as the badass she is and welcome each scene in which she appears. Shuri also has Matt’s favorite line in the movie: “Oh, great. Another white boy I have to fix!” (By the way, if you want to know about the fate of that other “white boy,” sit through all the closing credits.)
Wakanda is a stunning example of a gender-egalitarian world. So many feminist stories are written and told in the mold of The Handmaid’s Tale, and show their female characters struggling mightily to defy, or at least survive, patriarchal oppression. These are important and valuable stories, when told well. But what a relief it is, at least on occasion, to enter a world like Wakanda, in which women do not have to prove themselves but rather are accepted as powerful and competent individuals. Here we see men and women working well together, valuing each other as friends, helping each other — something I’ve longed to see more of for years. It’s especially uplifting to see a group of women who are completely confident in their abilities, comfortable in their own skins. Self-doubt doesn’t plague them. Even when they’re grieving the apparent loss of T’Challa, they don’t flounder. Rather, they take it upon themselves to save the kingdom.
Also refreshing is the absence of the Ordinary-Girl Love Interest (TM) who keeps the superhero “grounded.” Though romance is kept to a bare minimum, it’s clear the object of T’Challa’s romantic interest is Nakia, Dora Milaje warrior and spy, anything but ordinary. Instead of “grounding” T’Challa, she opens his eyes to new possibilities. It’s her vision of Wakanda’s emergence from isolation, to serve as aid and guide to the world around them rather than murderous avenger, that ultimately wins the day.
It represents a forward path for Hollywood storytelling. What would movies look like if “white male” were not the default setting for heroes/protagonists? What would they look like if we were at last free of the notion that stories with white male leads are universal while stories with non-white and/or non-male leads are for niche audiences only? A lot like this one, probably. This is the future this feminist wants.
We’re not there yet. Matt and I saw seven trailers before Black Panther finally started to roll. Of those seven, only one featured a non-white male lead (Rampage, with Dwayne Johnson), and only one featured a female character who gets to share protagonist status with a white guy (Ant-Man and the Wasp). The rest (Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, Mission Impossible: Fallout, Ready Player One, Solo: A Star Wars Story, and Hurricane Heist) offer white male business as usual, with POC in secondary roles and women doing their duty as sidekicks, damsels, love interests, or fatal femmes. Fans who complain of an “SJW conspiracy” to take over Hollywood ought to know that three out of fifteen mainstream releases per month with leads that aren’t white men does not evidence of a conspiracy make.
If the entertainment industry were truly as inclusive as it should be, the racial and gender make-up of Black Panther‘s characters would not be worth remarking on. But it isn’t — and so it is. The movie is superb in terms of storytelling and groundbreaking in terms of representation. (Some have said that people who praise Black Panther for giving us a POC superhero lead are forgetting Blade, and maybe they have a point, but hey, from what I recall, Blade wasn’t backed up by a badass corps of Dora Milaje.) And audiences are loving it. I’m down for the ripple effects, even though it may take some while for us to see them.
In other words, Matt and I had a fantastic time at Black Panther. My husband was not all that thrilled with the obligatory Stan Lee cameo, though (yes, he shows up in the film at a place you would not expect. The filmmakers should have tried harder, according to Matt…)