Over the last ten years, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has dropped blockbuster after blockbuster into theaters all over the world, elevating some of its most obscure heroes from the murky depths of obscurity to A-List celebrity essentially overnight — and in that time, some patterns have emerged.
With a staggering 18 films officially falling under the MCU umbrella, we’ve been given a laundry list of male superhero tentpoles. From Captain America to Ant-Man, these movies have set up a veritable buffet of men who are ready to face down their problems by punching them really, really hard — and so far, the only major deviation in this formula has been the off-chance that they might make you laugh while they’re doing it. At least, until now.
Enter Black Panther. King T’Challa of Wakanda, the Black Panther himself, is the latest addition to the MCU’s roster of men in costumes, and the list of things that set him apart from his predecessors could probably take a victory lap around the entire MCU several times over. Some of these are obvious — he’s the first black superhero in the MCU proper to get a solo movie, he’s the sovereign ruler of his own country, he’s decked out with tech that would make Iron Man green with envy. But the movie’s genre subversion doesn’t end there.
Black Panther fearlessly, unselfconsciously wears moments of genuine emotional vulnerability on its sleeve, from the turning point of the first act to the final beats before the credits roll — and all the while, it never stops being a superhero movie. Both heroes and the villains are keen to show the audience their soft underbellies, sometimes even while they’re half-decked out in their iconic, high tech costumes — and in doing so, they solidify Black Panther as the next evolutionary step in the MCU’s tried and true superheroic formula.
[Warning: The following contains spoilers for Black Panther]
The MCU has a problem
Testing the vulnerability of male superheroes obviously isn’t a new concept, or even something that the MCU itself has completely shied away from. Over the last three years of its decade-long run, movies like Captain America: Civil War and Spider-Man: Homecoming have dipped their toes into the shallow end of the pool. We’ve seen Steve Rogers protest the innocence of his best friend and ex-assassin, Bucky Barnes, to which Tony Stark responds with a soft, almost broken “I don’t care. He killed my mom.” We’ve seen Peter Parker trapped beneath a heap of rubble, calling for help, whimpering “C’mon Spider-Man” to spur himself to victory.
These moments are the eleventh hour turning points of their respective movies; the emotional climax that can only happen when it’s hand-in-hand with the action climax. That’s not to discount the resonance of a weepy teen hero under a death trap in his homemade costume, or the level of investment fans feel in Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark, but these moments aren’t thematic through-lines. They’re icing on the cake for Iron Man and Spider-Man, not a serving in the meal.
After a decade of storytelling, this distinction matters. By carefully rationing or excluding moments that might allow the audience to read their favorite male superheroes as anything other than traditionally powerful — physically, mentally and emotionally — their character arcs begin to stagnate all together.
A franchise is built on the idea of repeat outings for the same heroes. If those heroes never shed their bravado, only overcome adversity by proudly flexing and gritting their teeth, and only express a level of vulnerability at the most critical junctures of their stories, they aren’t growing. Beyond the risk of stripping away a character’s forward momentum, this lack of growth gets insidious. Who doesn’t want to root for Captain America or Thor, stalwart and strong and square jawed? Who wouldn’t want to follow their example and handle their problems by digging their heels in, tensing their washboard abs, and unflinchingly weathering the storm?
Repetition of these tropes and the continued emphasis on this brand of physical strength as the only story worth telling calcifies a series over time. It paves the way for narrative after narrative that all promote the same values — values that say the worth of a hero only goes as far as their body or their money can carry them.
There’s history here
This isn’t so much a critique of the MCU alone as it is an observation of superhero media across the board. Superheroes — specifically male superheroes — trade heavily on the idea that their physicality is more important than their emotional availability. The idea that a male hero’s need to maintain his hypermasculinity — his ability to settle conflict by winning a fight or taking a beating or by buying new tech or getting the girl — is more important than his ability to sit down and talk is practically baked into the genre.
From their genesis back in the late 30s, American superheroes have occupied a niche that combined social power fantasies with literal power fantasies. Characters like Superman were made as a direct response to the frustrations felt by two Jewish kids struggling through the racism and classism of depression-era Cleveland. Captain America, in kind, was an answer to the mounting apprehension of World War II by two twenty-something young men, both of whom would wind up enlisted to fight in real life not long after.
Superheroes have roots in a soil that is one part jaw-clenching frustration and two parts creative catharsis. But those ideas have slowly metamorphosed into modern, multi-million dollar franchise properties. And the values they started with — the emphasis on square jaws, bulging muscles, and the simmering frustration of people who so desperately wanted to be respected in society — have never really changed.
Now we’re left with A-List actors living out these roles on movie screens across the globe, expected to represent what superheroes are “supposed” to represent: the uncompromisingly stalwart, undeniably hypermasculine prowess that has become synonymous with cliches like “truth, justice, and the American way.”
Certainly, not every hero to hit theaters represents a flawless and uncompromising patriotic ideal. Marvel has made room for a spectrum of comic book hypermasculinity, some shades of which are not all that aspirational. Characters like Dr. Strange and Ant-Man exist in their solo films to be punished for their arrogance or to be the punchline of an ongoing joke — sometimes both at once.
However, at the end of the day, even these obviously flawed characters are still banking on their ability to physically dominate whatever problem they’re facing. If they’re vulnerable, they’re vulnerable as a gag or as a parable, or something designed for laughs or cringing, nervous discomfort from the audience as they watch.
Where does Black Panther fit in all of this?
At the turning point of Black Panther’s first act — a surrealistic scene where T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) has taken the mystical heart-shaped herb and gone on what amounts to both a vision quest to “the ancestral plane” and a near death experience — he is made to confront his late father, T’Chaka (John Kani). Against a swirling, neon splashed sky, T’Challa takes his father’s hands in his and tearfully, mournfully, admits “I’m not ready to be without you.”
It’s a somber, instantly memorable scene, accompanied by a swelling musical sting that was probably designed in a lab somewhere to tug at your heart. Director Ryan Coogler obviously wanted the audience to be on the verge of weeping right along with his hero. The logic of this moment is clear — T’Challa is in mourning, he’s just lost his father in a traumatic event that we, the audience, got to witness for ourselves back in Captain America: Civil War. What makes the scene stand out isn’t that it’s out of place — it’s the exact opposite. These moments pepper the entire film, and they’re never hedged around or coupled with caveats.
Black Panther represents Marvel’s first real attempt at acknowledging and addressing that male superheroes don’t need to be hypermasculine to be considered strong. From the first story beat, T’Challa’s vulnerability and emotional availability drive the story forward in unflinching fashion. Even the quote-unquote supervillain, Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) has moments of real openness, staring right into the camera as he sheds tears for his father and his own childhood — a luxury even major franchise mainstays have yet to be afforded.
And it’s not all tears and heartbreak. Black Panther’s revolutionary take on the emotional side of male superheroes can also be found in T’Challa’s ability to be openly affectionate with and lean on the women around him. Supporting characters like General Okoye (Danai Gurira), princess Shuri (Letitia Wright) and queen mother Ramonda (Angela Bassett) are all afforded the space for completely platonic affection. War Dog spy (and ex-girlfriend) Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) is allowed to have an arc of her own — making the decision between supporting Wakanda’s isolationist tradition or defying the customs of her country to save it — and it has nothing to do with romance. This, crazy as it sounds, is something still fresh for the MCU’s female characters, even after all these years.
Coogler has not only shown a willingness to focus on his unselfconsciously vulnerable hero, but has proved that committing to the rich, multifaceted, and sometimes quite soft emotional underpinning of the superheroic genre serves a hugely important purpose. The characters showcased here are some of the strongest and most thoroughly developed the MCU has produced, and they’ve reached this peak by the end of their first solo venture — while their counterparts are about to broach their fourth, fifth or sixth outings, and still fall short.
But superheroes are supposed to be aspirational!
Sure, thanks to the MCU’s complete saturation of the pop culture zeitgeist, superheroes are more aspirational — and ubiquitous — than they’ve ever been, and that isn’t a bad thing. However, after ten years of shared universe phenomena, the MCU’s scope and scale is finally starting to hit a wall.
It’s easy to ignore the studio’s reluctance to allow for even the barest shred of real, sustained vulnerability in their exclusively (for now) male title characters when you’re only working with a small sample size. Of course Captain America is only allotted the briefest second to tearlessly grieve for his lost friend in The First Avenger: This is the public’s first introduction to him on screen and he has to earn the right to be anything other than a symbol. Of course, Thor would express his dejection and betrayal from his father and homeworld of Asgard exclusively by grunting and flexing in his debut movie: That’s the cornerstone of his character arc. Of course, Tony Stark’s struggle with PTSD is tempered by wisecracking and irreverence. It’s good ol’ Tony after all, that’s what we expect.
But as the MCU has marched on, its characters have been stretched thin. Unlike their comics counterparts, the world of cinematic superheroes doesn’t have the luxury of hitting a cosmic reset button or conveniently cutting out whole swaths of continuity to make room for the next big adventure — the movies are just too expensive and too time consuming to allow for that level of narrative hopscotch. Instead, we’re approaching a critical juncture where these characters need to start emotionally evolving in order to keep the stakes of their stories high and their heroes from stagnating.
By allowing its superhero to be vulnerable without caveat, Black Panther has paved the way for the next phase of the MCU’s ongoing narrative — and a way for these characters to maintain their relevance and continued momentum for years to come. The tectonic plates of the superhero genre are experiencing a long overdue shift, and now it’s time for Marvel to ride that wave.
Meg Downey is a freelance pop culture journalist based out of Los Angeles, California who specializes in comics and superheroes. You can find her on Twitter @rustypolished, where’s she’s probably having a very public meltdown about something extremely embarrassing.