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Representation Matters...Except When It Doesn't

When the original Black Panther came out, it instantly became my favorite Marvel movie. The hero was a badass, the action was exhilarating, and the story was engrossing. More than that, though, I loved what it meant to see a superhero who was representing a new demographic of fans. The “Big Four” Marvel heroes (Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, and Hulk) were all white men (well, or green…), and it was an amazing cultural phenomenon to see the way the Black community reacted to a superhero that better represented their experience of the world.

I ran as quickly as possible to Black Panther: Wakanda Forever. There were so many compelling mysteries that the movie would have to handle. How do we move past the loss of Chadwick Boseman, both in the context of the movie and as viewers? Who was going to be the next Black Panther? Was this movie going to be able to be as evocative as its predecessor while maintaining the ultimate coolness of the hero?

After seeing the movie, Black Panther remains my favorite of the Marvel superheroes. But, I also realized that I share no representation with my go-to hero. We do not share a racial identity. We are not from the same country. We aren’t the same gender. And yet, she’s my favorite character anyway.

Being able to identify with a superhero character has been a major point of attention for the Marvel Cinematic Universe recently. We saw a Chinese hero in Shang-Chi. We saw a Pakistani-American superhero in Ms. Marvel. We saw a Black Captain America in Falcon and the Winter Soldier. And these diverse identities were not background information, but rather a central part of what made these shows and movies compelling. We have gotten to experiment with how profound our art can be when we broaden the scope of representation.

For most of my movie-watching life, the world has tailored to my identity more than any other. It is no big thing to find laudable, hero-worthy characters who are white men. Indiana Jones, James Bond, Rocky, John McClane, the list goes on and on. It’s embarrassing that I was 23 years old the first time I watched a movie where I thoughtfully internalized that my favorite character was female. (Rey from Star Wars) Because to that point, it was so easy to see myself reflected on the screen that I didn’t have to do any of the hard work myself.

I love Black Panther as a character because of the rich sense of morality that is an undercurrent in their story. I love Black Panther because it is by far one of the most epic costume designs in Marvel history. I love Black Panther for so many reasons, even though in many ways Black Panther wasn’t written for me. Because at the end of the day, we are able to enjoy and appreciate so many diverse kinds of stories, are able to see so many different expressions of life and find them worthwhile. It is unfortunate that so many of us haven’t had the chance to practice this appreciation more often.

Representation matters in a big way. Except for when it doesn’t. Because as long as everyone is finding ways in which their identity can be meaningfully lifted up and celebrated, we can then move on to enjoying those representations in all kinds of ways. In Black Panther, I can see someone who looks different from me, and want to aspire to be brave like them, to be strong like them, to be heroic like them. Because that’s why we watch superhero movies in the first place.


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