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In Black Panther, the hero owes a lot to his relationships with the women in his family.
Superhero movies are filled with dead parents. Bruce Wayne, Tony Stark, Peter Parker, Peter Quill, Magneto, and the Maximoff twins are all orphans. So it’s hardly surprising that so much of the heavier emotional content in superhero films is related to dead parents — grief, anger, feelings of inadequacy, desire to “prove” themselves. However, while these characters are missing both mothers and fathers, the paternal side of the equation gets most of the attention. And if family-based dramatic tension extends beyond parents, it often goes to brothers (hello, Loki).
Yes, mothers and sisters have been brought into the mix a few times, but they are brief blips or later reveals (such as Cate Blanchett’s Hela in Thor: Ragnarok) as opposed to deeply ingrained emotional cornerstones. Just think of the treatment of Tony Stark’s parents, Howard and Maria Stark. Even though in the climax of Captain America: Civil War, Tony insists mid-battle that he cannot bring himself to forgive Bucky Barnes because he killed his mother specifically, she is given about five seconds of screen time in a flashback holograph earlier in the film, and a scant handful of brief acknowledgments throughout all of Tony Stark’s numerous MCU appearances, as opposed to the repeated emphasis placed on Tony’s numerous Daddy Issues. Maria Stark is not a really treated like a person so much as a vague ghost of generic motherly affection.
While various dead mothers tend to be recalled more fondly than fathers, in the world of superhero movies, they have basically become an invisible multitude, as compellingly argued by Kara M. Kvaran in an extensively researched essay for The Journal of Popular Culture last year titled “Super Daddy Issues: Parental Figures, Masculinity, and Superhero Films.” As she writes, this divergent treatment of mothers and fathers “reinforces the idea that only male characters are inspirational or to be emulated” and “furthers the notion that masculinity is constructed and based on the opinions of other men, thereby making women irrelevant.”
Black Panther does not break away from the tradition of emphasizing a paternal legacy. T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) feels a great deal of grief and guilt over the death of his father, T’Chaka (John Kani), whom he was unable to save during an attack on the UN during Civil War. T’Challa seeks to emulate his father, who he holds up as an aspirational figure, only to find his faith shaken once he learns about some of his father’s shortcomings as both a person and a leader, and the terrible consequences of these faults. But what the film does demonstrate is that the beloved superhero trope of evolving father-son dynamics can be utilized without dismissing female family members. T’Challa has important, mutually significant relationships with both his mother, the wonderfully regal Queen Mother Ramonda (Angela Bassett) and his sister, the teenage tech genius Shuri (Letitia Wright).
The women of Black Panther possess their own agency, interests and motivations entirely independent of the men in their lives — an incredibly important point that I am certain other writers are exploring elsewhere. But I want to take a moment to acknowledge how the effects of a female presence, specifically this familial female presence, can be connected to some of the ways T’Challa’s attitude differs significantly from the various other starring men in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Unlike Tony Stark, Thor, Bruce Banner, Peter Quill, Steven Strange, or many of the other male heroes the MCU has introduced thus far, T’Challa is shown to be a man who is neither afraid nor embarrassed to not only have emotions, but also to display them. Whether greeting his mother or his good friend W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya), he does not shy away from physical or verbal displays of affection. When emotionally charged interactions with the people he cares for do occur, he does not feel compelled to undercut these moments through the use of sarcasm or witty barbs, a strategy so common among the MCU’s other heroes that it has practically become a calling card of the MCU brand. When he requires saving from a woman, there is neither undue hesitation in asking for help nor accepting it, whether that be from his fearsome bodyguard Okoye (Danai Gurira) or Shuri, because he knows better than to believe there is any shame in it, or that requiring a woman’s help makes him any less of a man. His masculinity is not so fragile that he feels compelled to engage in the kind of petty displays of hyper-masculine one-upmanship so often put on by other men found across the MCU. Of course, this begs the question: why is T’Challa so different?
Well, at least part of it should be attributed to the culture of Wakanda, which appears in Black Panther to generally treat women with an equal respect that is, unfortunately, one of the characteristics that propels it into the world of fantasy. However, looking at T’Challa, it seems that even beyond that there are influences and factors specific to him as an individual. He is generally shown to have a large number of meaningful relationships with women — all based on mutual respect, trust, and admiration — that is far beyond anything audiences have seen from any MCU superhero before him. More than once, T’Challa is shown to be in situations where he is outnumbered by women, and at no point does he make any sort of quip about it or give any indication of discomfort, because it is clear that it is, for him, a perfectly normal, everyday situation.
Ultimately, in addition to appreciating Shuri for all the various technology that keeps him alive (and, you know, looking awesome), T’Challa owes both her and his mother a big “thank you” for helping steer him away from that nasty toxic masculinity that drags down so many of his colleagues. With the guidance and support of the women in his life, and especially the women in his family, when T’Challa does face a crisis of belief regarding his father — that tried and true emotional hurdle beloved of superhero films everywhere — he has the inner strength and self-awareness to be able to deal with his feelings head-on. He does not make pointless detours to try drowning them in alcohol like Tony Stark or hitting them out of a punching bag like Steve Rogers. Though not technically a superpower, it’s an ability that more than a few of the superpowered beings of the MCU ought to wish they had.
In developing and emphasizing T’Challa’s relationships with Shuri and Ramonda — familial relationships beyond his father — Black Panther manages to explore the father-son relationship so beloved within the superhero genre while ditching the ugly side effects that so often result from its use.
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