After a decade of ensuring that the world—indeed, the galaxy—has been safe thanks to the hands of white men who are probably called Chris, Black Panther marks a step forward for Marvel Studios in a number of ways. It features the first leading man of color for the studio (not to mention a predominantly black cast, which feels both bold for a superhero movie and only sensible given that so much of the movie takes place in the fictional African nation of Wakanda), and also significantly redresses the gender imbalance of Marvel’s lineup of good guys to date, thanks to the introduction of the none-more-fearsome Dora Milaje.
Although the Black Panther debuted in 1966’s Fantastic Four No. 51—the character, created in an attempt to diversify the Marvel lineup, was almost called “Coal Tiger”; we can all be grateful that never took—the Dora Milaje weren’t invented for another three decades, finally showing up in 1998’s Black Panther No. 1. As created by Christopher Priest and Mark Texiera, they were part-punchline, part-eye candy: beautiful, silent women, described as “wives-in-training” by one character and acting as the bodyguard to the superhero who gave the comic book its title. Sure, they were definitely fearsome, but there was something oddly sexist about them at the same time; that their first appearance sees them described as “deadly Amazonian high school karate chicks” set the tone surprisingly well.
Although Priest played with the Milaje and what they meant to some degree during his time with the character, it would really fall to later writers to evolve and define them. Reginald Hudlin, Roxane Gay and especially Ta-Nehisi Coates put in a lot of work on the subject, humanizing them and drawing certain members into conflict with the man they have dedicated their lives to defend, pushing them to define their ideals and beliefs as a result. In the process, the Dora Milaje went from a fun (if limited) background idea to something entirely unexpected: Marvel’s own answer to Wonder Woman’s Amazons.
On the one hand, the idea that Marvel had been looking for its own Amazons is—at best—unlikely; the concept of a warrior woman race is a very precise one and is not particularly similar to anything else in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. On the other hand, it’s unlikely that Marvel Studios didn’t notice the response to last year’s Wonder Woman movie and think, “If only there was a way that we could have a female-empowerment franchise all of our own…!”
It’s not as if the women of Black Panther aren’t open to the idea. Talking to Entertainment Weekly to promote the movie, Danai Gurira—who plays Okoye, one of the leaders of the Dora Milaje—spoke about the way in which she believed her role could inspire future generations. The nation of Wakanda, she said, “was such an advanced nation, it actually allowed for evolution of gender roles. It recognized that you allow all your citizens to advance to their full potential … To me, it’s about equality, and allowing each gender to come to the fullness of their potential without discriminatory hinderances. That is what this nation figured out.” With such a viewpoint, it’s unlikely that Gurira would say no to returning to the role, or offering Okoye a spotlight of her own.
With the Dora Milaje, Marvel has the potential to offer moviegoers everything they enjoyed in the Wonder Woman movie—a movie that, need I remind anyone, reduced many women to tears last year—with one notable bonus. Yes, there will be women who are physical and powerful and don’t have to rely on men (or, for that matter, feel as if they need to appeal to the male gaze), but more importantly, it will all be happening in a cinematic universe that audiences are already invested in. Wonder Woman was a hit for Warner Bros. last year, but it was a hit in spite of the previous movies in the DC series, not because of it; far more people went into the theater worried about potential connections to Man of Steel or Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice than excited about them. Imagine what Marvel could do if it combined the excitement surrounding a female-centric superhero franchise willed with tough women with a franchise that audiences are already filled with goodwill for?
Whether or not Marvel is interested in such a thing is, sadly, unclear. While it would seem like a no-brainer to try and expand the appeal of Marvel by co-opting the excitement surrounding Wonder Woman with a similar property of its very own, the studio has historically shied away from what would seem to any outsider like money on the table.
That’s a line of thought shared by Kaila Hale-Stern, editor at feminist pop culture site The Mary Sue. “As a close Marvel-watcher, I’d be shocked if the Dora Milaje were to have a standalone movie anytime soon, or if there are any active plans for that [pre-Black Panther’s release],” Hale-Stern says. “We don’t even get the first female-led Marvel superhero movie [Captain Marvel] until next March, and it’s taken them an ungodly amount of time to even look at Black Widow, their most well-known female character played by the most bankable movie star in the world.”
Even if Marvel did want to counter-program Wonder Woman, Hale-Stern suggests, it wouldn’t necessarily be something that came from the Black Panther franchise. “The strongest prospect that I see for Marvel is for some sort of Lady Liberators-type film, like the one that Tessa Thompson cornered Kevin Feige and asked for. Hopefully, the Dora Milaje would be involved with that as well, not limiting their appearances to films where T'Challa is appearing. But I’m not holding my breath for the MCU to suddenly decide to start fast-tracking a women of color-fronted film. I can’t handle that much disappointment.”
Perhaps the studio might wait to see if fans around the globe start to call out for Dora Milaje spinoffs. But with Black Panther having debuted to a record-breaking opening weekend at the box office, it’s difficult to imagine audiences wouldn’t want to see more of them. The only thing standing in their way, then, is Marvel Studios itself.