Black Panther. Great movie. But it had …Daddy Issues.
Not that they weren’t done well. T’Challa inherits both the throne and the role of Panther from his recently deceased father. He is horrified to learn of the evil committed by his father, T’Chaka, in service to a problematic national policy. To surpass T’Chaka, he must ask himself if his resources are meant only to better those he is personally responsible for, or also the world at large? It’s a fine nuance of “with great power comes great responsibility.”
I’m not saying a movie with a protagonist atoning with his father isn’t a great story. It’s particularly resonant with the target audience of boys and young men, who are also the target audience of the source material (in Thor’s case, centuries of source material). I’d just like to look at this through a feminist perspective.
Black Panther is hardly a sexist movie, with many strong female characters. But consider his mother: Ramonda really doesn’t do anything other than nurture him. Not to discount Angela Bassett’s performance or the importance of love, not to mention saving T’Challa from his deathbed, but she doesn’t have character beyond “good mother.”
This is the case for many of our stories, certainly our action movies, and definitely our superhero movies. The father gives the hero his identity, his position in society, his powers, or his morals. The mother…loves him. She is loved, or mourned, or serves as a non-romantic Damsel in Distress. This is Aunt May’s literal raison d’etre.
Consider the many iterations of Superman. His biological father, Jor-El, is the only one competent enough to know Krypton is doomed, the only one maverick enough to defy the Council, the only one clever enough to build a spaceship. In some versions, he even invented a Phantom Zone portal and/or incarcerated criminals, not to mention the AI with his downloaded personality to posthumously dispense sagacity. Meanwhile, his wife, Lara Lor-Van, cries in his arms. That’s about it. Oh, in Man of Steel, Lara got to choose the planet where her son would thrive, and even push the launch button, effectively giving him his powers! And Ma Kent taught him to use those powers! But that gets buried in the plot driven by Jor-El stopping Zod’s coup, and the conflict created by over-protective Pa Kent.
Batman mourns his mother (quite loudly, in Batman vs Superman), but it’s his father that built up Gotham, provided his wealth and a manor over a cave, and, in the Nolan movies, provides the moral imperative not to quit. Star-Lord mourns his mother, but it’s his father that made him cosmic. Bruce Banner (Ang Lee/Eric Bana version) mourns his mother, killed by his father who made him The Hulk. Spider-Man spent three movies incorporating the advice of his foster father, two learning his powers came from his biological father, and one getting a super-suit and acceptance from father-figure Iron Man(?!?). In Justice League, Cyborg gets his powers from his father and Flash fights for justice because of his wrongly imprisoned father; their mothers are dead. Daredevil’s widower father was a boxer that defied the mob and paid the price; as an adult, his son punches mobsters using his father’s marquee sobriquet. Thor’s mother, a Viking goddess, gets to swing a sword in defense of her husband and sons before she, too, is mourned. But it is Odin and his throne that drives the plots and the emotional conflict. Why is Iron Man an alcoholic inventor, Green Lantern a test pilot, Ghost Rider a stunt performer? Don’t ask their mothers. They’re barely in the stories, or not there at all. Fathers provide the identity.
Don’t forget the villains: Loki, Hela, Killmonger, Ares, Whiplash, Green Goblin Junior, Luthor Junior, Talia Al Ghul, and even Ultron explore their Daddy Issues with violence. And Absorbing Man, Yondu, Thanos, and Ego are the Daddies.
Note how often this happens with comic-page-to-screen female characters, too. I mean, one of them is actually named Elektra. Betsy Ross from Hulk, Carol Ferris from Green Lantern, Hope Van Dyne from Ant-Man, and Gamora and Nebula from Guardians of the Galaxy argue with their fathers, but their mothers are absent. Remember Batgirl from the 60’s Batman show, wanting to uphold the law like her father while dressed as Daddy’s best friend? Quick, who played her mother? Trick question.
This is just now starting to change, with Wonder Woman barely including Zeus but showing how her mother and General Antiope made her the woman she is. In the Supergirl TV show, the conflict comes from the villains imprisoned by her mother, a welcome change from the source material. Hope Van Dyne will take her long-lost mother’s alias in Ant-Man and The Wasp. The Ancient One in Dr. Strange was a flawed, fascinating female mentor for Strange to reconcile with. This is the fresh idea I’d like to see more of: mothers that are characters apart from being good mothers, and who provide their children with their identities. Can we see more of this? Aquaman is the son of lighthouse keeper and an Atlantean Queen in exile. One is more interesting than the other. Will screenwriters take advantage of this? Will the next Spider-Man movie see Peter trying to live up to the example set by Aunt May? Will Superman ever face a Kryptonian villain that hates him because he is the son of Lara?
So a plea that will go unheard by major motion picture studios: women are people, even when they are mothers. They might be complex characters, and even responsible for what makes protagonists special. There’s nothing wrong with well-told Daddy stories. But for the sake of both variety and equality, can we ease up on those, and try a few Mother stories?