Here's What Black Panther Is Doing Differently For Its Female Heroes

Photo: Matt Kennedy/Marvel Studios.
It’s no secret that women are often given limiting, one-dimensional roles in films, whereas their male counterparts have more room to be fully-dimensional and flawed characters; action films are especially guilty of this.
Marvel, having heard these complaints, are making improvements. The studio already has had a history of letting their action heroes break down barriers. Heroes like the Hulk, Spider-Man, and Captain America have publicly dealt with vulnerability or choosing individual happiness over their duty as public figures. But Marvel’s female characters haven’t quite gotten the same development or time in the spotlight as their male counterparts.
For most of the Marvel cinematic universe, Black Widow has been the only female hero to get significant screentime and development, though that hasn’t been completely positive. In the first Avengers film, Black Widow shared screentime with Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) and Commander Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders). By the second Avengers film, Age of Ultron, the latter two women were no longer on-screen. Visibility for women aside, the direction of some of Black Widow’s development during Age of Ultron (notably, her struggles with infertility during the film) had mixed reviews from audiences. In fact, Age Of Ultron addressed their absence head-on in a joke, which was more successful in highlighting the film's problem giving its female characters nuanced representation than it was at being funny.
We’re beginning to see a shift in the right direction; a long-overdue Black Widow film has finally been announced, and upcoming films will focus on heroes such as Captain Marvel — not to mention the increase of development for women in Marvel’s TV shows.
Black Panther is Marvel’s latest film, and it’s already breaking records before it debuts in theatres; the excitement for a film that celebrates and centers Black heroes shows this message is clearly something that resonates with audiences, now more than ever. But as the latest trailer highlights, there’s more to Black Panther than just giving us a new hero to fight for justice. One of the many things that sets Black Panther apart from other Marvel films is how its female action heroes able to do so much more than hang on the sidelines.
In the featurette, some of the cast members give behind-the-scenes interviews on what audiences can expect from their characters. T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) and Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) are the film’s main protagonist and antagonist, though they aren’t the only ones that are being used to explore the connection between good vs. evil. The Dora Milaje, the all-female personal guards of the Black Panther, have been captivating audiences since their general, Okoye (Danai Gurira) made her debut in Captain America: Civil War. In the clip, Lupita Nyong'o’s explained that “Okoye represents the old guard and tradition, while my character, Nakia, challenges tradition.”
The Dora Milaje aren’t the only ones exploring traditionally male-focused themes of humanity and power. Other characters within Wakanda are moving to break barriers of what women can and cannot do within film. Beyond the Dora Milaje, we can see expectations like this being shattered from characters like lead scientist (and T’Challa’s sister) Shuri (Letitia Wright). In the film, she is the lead in designing T’Challa’s Black Panther suit during the film; seeing a Black woman celebrated in a STEM-focused role is just as revolutionary as the women fighting on the battlefield.
The expansion of what a woman’s role in film looks like speaks directly to how the female action heroes of Black Panther are able to balance their fight scenes with embodying these expansive personal themes. Giving women, especially Black women, such public roles in the film not only speaks volumes to how women are regarded within Wakanda, but also shows the shifting attitudes of women’s roles in action films. The way that female action stars are celebrated and centered within the film is just another reason to snag a ticket to see Black Panther once it’s released next month.
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