The Marvel Cinematic Universe has struggled to set a proper stage for its women characters. For 10 years, MCU fans watched as some of their favorite characters stayed in supporting roles, while the ostensibly more financially viable and narratively essential men went on to have multiple sequels. But lately, slowly, women-led Marvel titles have been on an uptick in cinemas and on Disney’s streaming platform. And with Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, Wakanda’s greatest resource is realized to forge a first in MCU history: Heroines unburdened by origin story.
The call to inner girl (super) power, as liberating as that can be, limits the scope of stories viable for women in the superhero genre. By exploring the lives of powerful women in unimaginable peril, Wakanda Forever makes truly major players out of women for the first time.
The untimely passing of Chadwick Boseman, who originally played the Black Panther, caused a riptide of emotions throughout Black nerddom. His passing posed two questions. Who would take over the mantle, and would Marvel decide to recast T’Challa? Some fans feared what an MCU would look like without King T’Challa, a seminal character in the Marvel comic books. But inside the film’s production, the cast and crew reportedly mourned their friend and creative partner, and Wakanda Forever, in its final form, shows that they would not gloss over his absence.
Ryan Coogler, who wrote the Black Panther: Wakanda Forever script with Joe Robert Cole, explored that grief through water. The purifying waters of a flood, water as a source of life, and water of the mother’s womb. While all of Wakanda mourns T’Challa, it’s the women in his life who do the heavy lifting for the audience. T’Challa’s mother Ramonda, his sister Shuri, his partner Nakia, and his general Okoye all mourn in their own unique ways. Marvel’s first film led by women emerged out of tremendous grief.
It’s not the first all-female team up in the MCU, or the first female-lead film, but it’s the first to break out of a certain mold. In Black Widow, Natasha Romanoff had the courage to wield her power and make peace with the past. Noble pursuits, but overused in this genre, particularly in stories about women.
The same basic plot points come up in She-Hulk, Ms. Marvel, Wandavision, and Captain Marvel. Compare that to Captain America: The First Avenger. Steve gets super powers overnight, but he’s never made to question how to use them, nor is he made to feel badly about his past. Dr. Strange’s powers cure the inadequacy he feels after his hands are mangled and he loses his ability to perform surgery. The one male Avenger who goes through a similar arc is Iron Man: His power resides in his immense wealth, and he must decide how to wield it so that it doesn’t further damage the world.
In contrast, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever features four women who hold veteran positions of power. Okoye leads the Dora Milaje warriors as their general. Nakia, retired from the ranks of Wakanda’s most elite spies, starts a school in Haiti. Shuri has led the Wakandan science delegation since she was a teenager. As a nation, Wakanda’s respect for women resides in the many women leaders who sit on the high council and their position in military and spy neworks. None of these characters question if they possess power, or if they should possess power, and no one questions why have that power — unless based on their individual failure. When they succeed together, there’s an overwhelming feeling of victory, not because of a girl power sheen, where becoming rooted in their identity allowed them to triumph over those who threatened it. It’s the victory of those who triumph by being who they are, not finding out who they are.
Wakanda Forever breathes this idea from its earliest scenes, as in when Queen Ramonda stands before the UN and says, “We hear what you whisper in your halls. The king is dead. They are weak” — and then demonstrates for all to see that despite all its losses between Black Panther and now, Wakanda’s strength has remained intact. The toll of civic duty and personal sacrifice continues to impact each woman’s journey in Wakanda Forever. As compelling as watching young women step into their power can be, it is only the first step in a long journey. The weight carried by the heroes in Wakanda Forever is consistently evident, and it’s exactly the thing that makes a hero worth watching.
Toni Morrison once said, “The function, the very serious function of racism is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being. Somebody says you have no language and you spend twenty years proving that you do. Somebody says your head isn’t shaped properly so you have scientists working on the fact that it is. Somebody says you have no art, so you dredge that up. Somebody says you have no kingdoms, so you dredge that up. None of this is necessary. There will always be one more thing.”
Something similar is at play when only the start of a woman’s journey is deemed the only portion worth telling. Misogyny will impact how others view a woman in power, but it does not define her — in the same way that racism impacts why Wakanda wished to remain hidden for centuries, but did not color how Wakandans live their day-to-day lives. When prejudice is the primary hurdle a character must overcome, we miss what makes them a unique individual. We miss her shadows, the demons she must face, and the wrongs she needs to right within herself. That is the journey of being human, and it’s why people watch superheroes.
When Nakia and Shuri work together, they build on years of their relationship, bonded in sisterhood and loss. This pairing drives the narrative, and therefore spectacle never enters the conversation. The story’s focus is two humans processing loss and learning how to live without the being who impacted their worldview most. For all the flying and laser beam eyes, it’s the self that truly inspires superhero audiences.
Wakanda’s strength have always laid with its women. If T’Challa stood as the country’s human embodiment, it’s only to show that clearly. Nakia gave T’Challa his heart, Ramonda his life, Shuri his armor, and Okoye operated as his number one in the field. When women are essential to the story they move beyond a quota to fill, and become humans to celebrate, fear and admire. These women, and women like them, should be the ones to continue building the Marvel Cinematic Universe.