By Paige Kelleher
I was ten years old when my Dad introduced me to Marvel’s Avengers for the first time. I can remember the feel of the couch, the way I was sitting, the moment Black Widow appeared on screen. My Dad loved action movies, loved a little comedy with his violence, and he loved sharing them with me, his eldest daughter. Then, he may have known how special seeing a woman on that screen would be to me, but neither of us realized that the catharsis I experienced would be a feeling I chased for years after, only found at the moment of realizing there was a character, a moment, a scene, a movie, written for me. In years and years of viewership and chasing, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, more commonly known as the MCU, has angered me, disappointed me, surprised and shocked me, and I’m here to say that, ever since that first viewing, only one of their movies has truly ever lived up to and delivered on that experience: Black Panther, written by Ryan Coogler and Joe Robert Cole, and directed by Ryan Coogler. Compared to its studio predecessors and contemporaries, Black Panther is a shining example of female representation in film.
If you aren’t aware of the plot, I suggest you watch the movie. Besides being a masterclass on depicting women in film, Black Panther deftly both stays true to Marvel and makes nuanced statements on topics of race and violence, all with an overflowing amount of style and entertainment. This article will make more sense if you come back.
Black Panther’s strongest point is in its cast of well-developed characters, a wonderful trait that even extends to the women of the film. First, we have Shuri: while privileged, being a member of the royal family, Shuri is repeatedly showcased as exceptionally brilliant, dedicated, and above all, entertaining. It’s easily believable that even without her connection to the king, she could be a young but major force in the scientific breakthroughs of the ultra-advanced nation of Wakanda. She’s not the typical nerd, nor technology expert, but rather an incredibly fleshed-out character; not only does she power the car, but she also drives it too. She makes the tech and uses it. She’s as socially adept as she is technologically. She supports her brother’s opinions, and yet we never doubt she has opinions of her own. This easily makes sense to a viewer when compared to her mother: played the indomitable Angela Bassett (one of the greatest players in a long list of future greats) Ramonda is the Queen Mother, and acts the part. Intelligent, well-liked, deeply entrenched in the world around her and yet never passive, never quiet, she takes every stereotype attached to Black women and uses them to represent the real-life people who are so often the heart behind their communities.
Shuri, played by Letitia Wright, defending Wakanda using her own technology.
With T’Challa coming from a family of strong women, it only makes sense his chosen family would be as well – both Okoye, his personal head of guard and best friend, and love interest, Nakia, are also strong women and major players in his life. Despite their friendship, mutual love for T’Challa, and shared power, these women couldn’t be more different; Okoye, being a formal member of the guard assigned to upkeep the law of the crown, plays by the rules, even to the detriment of the people she loves. During the film, Okoye is, at different times, faced with her chosen king, T’Challa, and her lover, W’Kabi, and still puts her country, her duty, above all, subverting normal expectations of overly-emotional women. Nakia, on the other hand, proves that Coogler doesn’t disapprove of emotional women, nor does he doubt them; Nakia’s devotion aligns with who she chooses, under her own morals and beliefs. She sees right and wrong, but decides on her own, and acts accordingly, more vigilante than law keeper.
Okoye, played by Danai Gurira, confronting her love interest, W’Kabi, played by Daniel Kaluuya.
With these four women, viewers are presented with Black women who are diverse in their viewpoints, beliefs, and skills. Young Black girls can see themselves as scientists and leaders, as well as spies and muscle-power. Not to mention, they can see themselves in a variety of natural hairstyles and fashion; Shuri in box braids and her own brain of Gen-Z afro-futurism style, Nakia in a bantu-knot styles and stunning African prints, Okoye pairing a shaved head with traditional Wakandan tattoos and effortless power-dress, and Ramonda in ceremonial royal clothing and matching headpiece or in natural styles revealing proudly white hair.
But these might not seem like major wins if you’re not aware of the surrounding context, both in its predecessors and contemporaries in the Marvel Universe, which is why I’m going to talk about two other trademarks of the MCU, Black Widow and Captain Marvel. Black Widow, as I mentioned in the introduction, was the first major female player of the MCU (with an honorable mention to Pepper Potts), becoming known as the first female Avenger, and appearing as a side character in half of the movies of Phase 1. However, despite the three movies she appeared in, the viewers find out little to nothing about this character. In fact, I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that some viewers left the first Avengers movie more familiar with her curves and cleavage than say her traits or background. Despite being one of the only characters whose strength comes from her own inner power, rather than science, magic, or divinity, she is reduced to nothing beyond “the first female Avenger.” That being said, her appearance excited many young girls, myself included, and gave me a character to compare much of my favorite media in the following years to.
Natasha Romanoff, otherwise known as Black Widow, as played by Scarlett Johansson.
But Marvel wouldn’t release a female-led movie for almost ten years later, and only after pressure to do so when another studio released a wildly-popular female-led superhero movie. This pressure would make itself apparent in almost every aspect of the film; the movie self-righteously focuses more prominently on proving how pro-women the studio is, rather than providing a movie that is both watchable and enjoyable. Their attempt to give viewers a long-promised female lead manifested into a glancing approach towards misogyny and colonialism, without following up on any of it. Captain Marvel is an interesting character, and I commend the studio for giving her specifically female traits and strengths; but after ten years of faithful viewership, I expected a Marvel movie with women, not a woman movie by Marvel. The equivalent introduction movies – such as Iron Man, Captain America: America’s First Avenger, Thor, Ant-Man, Dr. Strange – gave viewers some of the most rewatchable films of all time, and focused on universal truths and themes – arrogance, patriotism, the overlap of magic and science. Captain Marvel attempted for the same, but fell short of ever being as iconic. Even when the Black Widow movie came out (more than eleven years after the original Avengers movie), it felt like a disjointed, messy, and haphazard attachment to an already finished story, and fell short of nearly every attempt at “feminist themes,” including reproductive health, power in sisterhood, male dominance, and the patriarchy.
Promotional material for Captain Marvel, with Brie Larson playing the titular character.
Comparing the two, it becomes apparent that the issues both have nothing to do with characterization and everything to do with characterization; despite Captain Marvel and Black Widow being heavily developed and given the majority of the screen time, their individual traits, personalities, and backgrounds have little to do with them being real women. My life as a woman isn’t about slogans and t-shirtable sayings, or even micro-aggressions or the patriarchy; it’s about who I am, what I do, what I believe in. In trying to make a “feminist” character, the MCU reduced each character to some definition of performative activism feminism, rather than just presenting female characters in an equitable view, which is the real definition of feminism. The reasons for these films have been made clear; representation is important, exciting, cathartic, and it makes money for studios. It’s just and right to make equal access. Writers of all films, especially those of the MCU and ongoing superhero series, benefit from being aware of this, in both the stories we tell and how we tell them. But my experience as a woman deserves to be told, not because I’m a woman, not to make things fair. My stories, our stories, deserve to be told because even when we’re superhuman, we’re still human.