While Black Panther looks to be a gamechanger for the Marvel Cinematic Universe based on early reactions, it’s not just Marvel’s first movie centered around a black superhero that is helping the movie blaze a new path. Black Panther is also a film filled with powerful female characters that are as important when it comes to saving the world as the titular superhero himself.
While the previous MCU movies have introduced characters like Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), Black Panther takes the inclusion of women one step further. The females of the film are put in the spotlight, thanks in large part to the Dora Milaje–an all-female group of special forces bodyguards and operatives. They are responsible for the protection of Wakanda and its royal family, with two high-ranking members, Nakia (Lupita N’Yongo) and Okoye (Danai Gurira) spending much of the film at the Black Panther’s (Chadwick Boseman) side.
“[They] were fully-developed female characters, too,” Gurira explains during a press conference at Black Panther‘s junket. “A lot of times movies, and sometimes comics, have a weird history sometimes with female characters. These were fully-developed women in this movie, which I loved.”
For Gurira, it all started when she shaved her head for the role. “The pride started to grow,” she says. “There’s pride around it, and there’s this sort of embracing of this symbol of power of these women.”
It’s not just the Dora Milaje that are given the spotlight, though. The royal family itself is treated with importance, well beyond Wakanda’s king. “In African culture, they feel as if there is no king without a queen, and I think this story highlights the warrior, the general, the young sister,” Angela Bassett, who plays Queen Mother Ramonda, says. “I was so proud to have my daughter and my son there last night because in their faces and in their spirit, they were feeling themselves, and they stood taller after last night.”
Perhaps what this film attempts beyond showing how powerful the women are, though, is showing how different they are from each other. T’Challa’s sister Shuri (Letitia Wright) is a 16-year-old genius with a wicked sense of humor, while Okoye is a traditional and proud warrior who serves her nation above all, and Nakia is a skilled spy who thrives in undercover situations. Still, even with fundamental differences in their personalities, the cast takes pride that it doesn’t turn confrontational.
“What I love about the way this film represents women is that each and every one of us is an individual, unique. We all have our own sense of power and our own agency. And we hold our space without being pitted against each other,” Nyong’o says. “I think that’s a very, very powerful message to send to children, both male and female. This idea, often times in movies, we fall into that trap where women–there’s very few of us–and men go against each other. There’s a competitive spirit. This film freezes all of that, and we see women going about their business and supporting each other and even arguing with each other, having different points of view, but not being against each other. I think that’s extremely important.”
Clearly, Marvel understands the importance of empowered women in its universe. Whether it’s Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) in Thor: Ragnarok, Brie Larson’s upcoming turn as Captain Marvel, The Wasp (Evangeline Lilly) joining Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) on his next adventure, or the MCU finally getting to work on a Black Widow standalone movie, this franchise is taking encouraging steps. Hopefully, that’s something that continues.
Black Panther is in theaters on February 16.