The description of T'Challa's teenage sister Shuri in Black Panther as "the smartest person in the world" divided fan opinion this week on social media, with some applauding a young, black female character being elevated to such a position. However, others decried producer Nate Moore's assertion that the Wakandan princess is smarter than Tony Stark, and even went on to list such long-established Marvel Comics geniuses as Reed Richards, Bruce Banner and Hank McCoy. All are indeed part of Marvel's super-smart elite, and have been for a long time. They're also all white men, and that last point is really what those so strongly objecting to Shuri's snatching of the Marvel Cinematic Universe's IQ crown from Tony are missing.
“As far as the technologically advanced side, in our mind, and in our incarnation, Shuri is the head of the Wakanda Design Group,” Moore explained of Shuri's role during a Black Panther set visit. “She’s the smartest person in the world, smarter than Tony Stark, but she’s a 16-year-old girl, which we thought was really interesting. Again, black faces in positions of power or positions of technological know-how, that’s a rarity. So it’s something that’s a big part of the film.”
There are plenty of strong, smart black women in superhero comics -- Storm, Spectrum, Amanda Waller and Misty Knight, for starters -- but super-intelligent ones who can rival the genre's heaviest intellectual hitters are few and far between. That isn't a problem exclusive to comics, though. When we think of a stereotypical genius in any medium -- comics, prose, television, film -- we tend to envision a white man. Upon further deliberation, we might conjure a white woman, or a black man. But a black woman? While superhero comics aren't solely to blame for that, it doesn't mean the industry can shirk the responsibility of tackling the problem, especially when the likes of Marvel and DC Comics wield such mighty cultural influence at the moment. In fact, Marvel has made a pointed effort to rectify that disproportion in recent years with the introduction of Riri Williams and Moon Girl, the latter of whom now holds the title of smartest person in the Marvel Comics universe; Letitia Wright's Shuri will ascend to that throne in the Marvel Cinematic Universe when Black Panther premieres next month.
Two young black women holding intellectual dominion over Marvel's comics and cinematic universe is a golden moment of positive synergy in pop culture. So, yes, it's disappointing that some fans feel the status quo of endless smart white male characters shouldn't be disrupted by the inclusion of even one black woman. In fact, the "should" comes across as more of a "can't." The big problem with that kind of negative reaction is that it speaks to a horribly offensive stereotype about the intelligence of black women. Tell people that a white male character is the smartest person in the world, and the chances are they'll accept your word for it -- because we've been culturally and socially trained to recognize that's what genius looks like, from Sherlock Holmes to Sheldon Cooper. In contrast, black female characters are expected to prove their intelligence. And even then, God forbid they be more intelligent than a white male counterpart like Tony Stark.