One of Black Panther’s many highlights is a Bond-like casino faceoff that turns into an Afrofuturistic car chase through the streets of South Korea. King T’Challa, undercover spy Nakia, and Okoye, the head of her team of bodyguards, the Dora Milaje, set out on a mission to intercept the smuggler Ulysses Klaue’s sale of stolen vibranium and either kill him there or bring him to Wakanda to face the consequences. In spite of their lack of superpowers, Nakia and Okoye more than hold their own, using their adept fighting skills (not to mention resourcefulness with a wig and a high heel) to fend off Klaue’s men. When they follow him into the streets, they get a helpful assist from T’Challa’s sister, Shuri, who drives a high-powered car remotely from her Wakandan tech lab. Ultimately, they fail to bring Klaue to justice—T’Challa allows CIA agent Everett Ross (Martin Freeman) to take him into custody—but the staging of the showdown, with all four working together as a cohesive unit, subtly illuminates how groundbreaking the movie is within the Marvel universe. Black Panther confidently performs the tricky balancing act of writing fully realized women characters into a traditionally male-centered narrative by wholeheartedly believing that they are integral to the storytelling.
In its skeletal form, the movie’s central conflict emerges from the fraught relationships between two pairs of male adversaries, the late King T’Chaka and his brother N’Jobu in 1992, and their sons T’Challa and Erik in the present day. There’s much to mine from the depiction of fathers and sons (the opening montage is N’Jobu telling his young son the story of their ancestors), and there are no fewer than three one-on-one battles between T’Challa and a male opponent. But in Black Panther, women are just as crucial to the world of Wakanda and how it’s governed as the men. It’s Okoye, Shuri, and Nakia who have the ear of T’Challa more often than anyone else in the movie: Nakia attempts to nudge him away from his father’s isolationist stance so that they can provide aid to other African countries. Okoye is his confidante, and she shares with him a strong sense of duty to the job and an easy rapport, as evidenced during their banter with one another in their native tongue in front of Everett at the police station. Shuri is his Q, consistently testing the limits of technological advancement and designing for him the ultimate suit and footwear for combat while serving up affectionate ribbings the way siblings do.
Even on the periphery, there’s no discernible gender-based hierarchy among the tribal elders, who take turns voicing their opinions respectfully, if forcefully. Little in the script suggests that women are considered incapable of doing what the men can do merely because they aren’t men: Shuri’s undercutting joke about her corset at T’Challa’s crowning ceremony seems a sly nod to her possible ascension to the throne; the other tribe members’ laughter could be read as a reaction to the idea that the king’s own sister would challenge him, rather than simply because she’s a woman. When T’Challa is presumed dead, Nakia turns to the Jabari Tribe only after she tries and fails to team up with Okoye against Killmonger—even with the powerful heart-shaped herb she’s managed to save from the new king’s orders of destruction, a spy without an army is a setup for failure, she understandably reasons.
There are three fully realized women here, none of them exactly alike, and the film provides ample evidence of mutual respect between them and their countrymen. The casino and car-chase sequence devotes equal time to Black Panther’s daring stunts as it does to Okoye’s masterful spear tricks. Later, during the Wakandan civil war, it repeats this feat on an even larger scale—although the bloated set piece falls into the trap of stuffing too much muddled action into the third act of a Marvel movie, at least this time it’s in the service of watching many skilled and powerful women join together in battle. And there’s still enough time for each of them to demonstrate their individuality in the midst of it all: When Okoye insists that she has no reservations about killing her husband if he continues to support Killmonger now that T’Challa is shown to be alive, the moment is a brutal testament to her will and perfectly in keeping with her stance throughout the rest of the film.
This attention to detail, the clarity in personalities in the main characters and beyond, is what truly sets Black Panther apart from other comic book movies, including Wonder Woman.
The latter, for all its forward strides, still suffers from a singular exceptionalism—once Diana Prince leaves her Amazonian homeland, she becomes the film’s sole example of female fortitude. Sure, it’s nice to see a woman leading and outsmarting the men for a change, but the film still forces an uncomfortably hurried romantic subplot with one of her allies into the mix and has characters commenting upon her physical appearance every step of the way.
One could argue that these differences make sense given Wonder Woman’s World War I backdrop and Black Panther’s Afrofuturistic setting—also, everyone in Wakanda is stunningly beautiful, so there’s no need to go on about it all the time—but even in the present day, Diana remains Justice League’s sole female superhero. As moving as it was to see so many little girls and women dressing up as Wonder Woman last year, the fact that Black Panther has a wider variety of Wakandan women to identify with—are you insanely smart and tech savvy like Shuri, or a do-gooder with maternal instincts like Nakia?—is a crucial step toward truly progressive feminism on screen. The movie may be called Black Panther, but it’s clear that the female characters’ individual relationships to T’Challa move far beyond sidekick or love interest. Wakanda would be sorely at a loss without them.
Black Panther’s road to success, both creatively and financially, relied on a lot of obvious factors and strategies: the usual Marvel marketing machine, a capable director, a strong cast, and a story that could satisfy both the fans and the audience members who couldn’t tell you what vibranium was but knew this was not an event to be missed. Yet even with performers as talented as Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, and scene-stealer Letitia Wright, it was difficult to anticipate that this comic book movie might dare to become arguably the most feminist example of its kind to date. Women have played third or fourth fiddle (or just plain damsel in distress) in these movies much more often than not, and with very rare exception have black women played any significant part in the stories at all. Just as Wakanda is a utopian symbol for black people in its depiction of a nation relatively untouched by colonialism, so does it now represent an ideal world in which men and women coexist respectfully, on an equal playing field.