Black women are the superheroes the world needs

By Maya Phillips

A white billionaire playboy spends his evenings fighting bad guys in a cape and mask. A white alien works as a journalist but skips out to take down villains in the city.

Traditionally, superheroes fit a predictable mold: white males who stand as bastions of justice despite their vigilante status. In the riveting recent Netflix film “The Old Guard” and the masterly Emmy-nominated HBO series “Watchmen,” Black women are the new kinds of heroes, not only breaking this mold but also allowing for a radical shift in storytelling.

A new guard of superheroism doesn’t simply mean diversity. It makes room for the possibility that especially now, as our political systems and institutions are being questioned, there is no absolute moral authority, even for those tasked with saving the day. It presents individuals better equipped to understand the weight of the badge and the mask, and the cost that comes with calling oneself a hero.

In “The Old Guard,” a foursome of immortals are led by the eldest, Andy (a mesmerizing Charlize Theron), a butt-kicking, steely-eyed warrior. As they trot around the globe crushing bad guys, they welcome a new member, a Marine named Nile (KiKi Layne).

When we meet Nile, she’s stationed in Afghanistan, handing out candy to kids in the street. Ordered to get intel on a location where a dangerous man might be hiding, she reminds her fellow troops to “keep it respectful.” She shoots the target but is visibly affected when he survives. She immediately rushes to stop the bleeding but is left vulnerable to a fatal knife attack — from which she miraculously recovers.

Movies and TV shows love an optimistic rookie, and the young and empathetic Nile is certainly that. But her race also ropes her into another cliché. Black women are often presented as the standard-bearers of ethical action. They’ve seen miscarriages of justice and have silently borne the pain or valiantly fought back; either way, they are resilience and goodness personified. This carries over to superhero narratives as well: think of Misty Knight in “Luke Cage,” Storm in the “X-Men” films, even the no-nonsense Okoye from “Black Panther.” Although Black women are rarely the protagonists of these stories, they are often charged with being the pillars of strength and moral foundations of the team. In “The Old Guard” Nile is both the bright-eyed newbie and the strong moral compass, so she can serve as a foil for Andy and the others.

Last fall “Watchmen” also ended with the initiation of a Black female hero but delivered a more complex examination of her relationship to law enforcement, heroism and vigilantism. In the original comic of the same name, Alan Moore and David Gibbons produced an exquisite story but didn’t present any heroes of color and didn’t address the issue of race at all.

The HBO series, created by Damon Lindelof as a sequel to the original, is refreshingly reactionary, positioning the narrative around race and presenting a Black heroine as the protagonist: a police officer named Angela Abar (Regina King) who gets tangled up in the world of superheroes and a megalomaniacal scheme for ultimate power.

After becoming immortal, facing the rejection of her military peers, Nile is marginalized by one army with a morally ambiguous history of atrocities, foreign interference and political agendas just to become the newest soldier of another that’s equally morally ambiguous — but rationalized in the universe of the film. Angela, by contrast, breaks with the police and their track record of racist behavior; by acting independently, in line with her own morals, she is granted godhood.

Whether this makes her infallible isn’t the point. The point is that she is a Black woman who has found power outside a broken structure. Although this and her identity don’t make her irreproachable, her experiences as a Black woman, a police officer and then a vigilante give her a more nuanced understanding of justice. She has the potential to be an even greater hero than the ones we’ve seen.

Both “The Old Guard” and “Watchmen” present enthralling universes with powerful beings who aim to do right. But even in that supposedly protected world, justice isn’t a given. The character best suited to bring about change is the one who knows the system inside and out and understands what it means to be crushed beneath it. These Black women aren’t perfect, but they are the harbingers of a heroic revolution. Because when a Black woman puts on a mask, she is the closest vision of the kind of hero that the world actually needs.

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