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Peter Jensen is an editorial writer at The Baltimore Sun.
We live in what might be the golden age of superheroes. The latest Marvel movie, “Black Widow,” earned big bucks on its opening last weekend, both streaming through Disney Plus and in person in theaters — despite the COVID-19 pandemic. No big surprise. The last 23 movies based on Marvel comics have collectively earned more than $22.5 billion worldwide. Throw in movies based on D.C. comics since 2013 and you have another $5.2 billion. That adds up to more than the annual gross domestic product of about half the world’s countries. As Bonnie Tyler might observe, we are holding out for a hero.
There are probably any number of reasons for the trend. We live in uncertain times. The pace of change can be disorienting and make us feel powerless. Lord knows we have super villains to vanquish. And maybe above all, it’s due to the creative vacuum of Hollywood, where if one idea succeeds, it will be done over and over again until we beg the studios to stop.
Personally, I enjoy a good comic book movie. My spouse is less enthralled. Her question: Why does the earth’s fate always come down to a fist fight? Because, as I try to patiently explain to her, comic book images of people doing anything but throwing punches are static and boring.
Yet we do share this in common: In real life, we don’t really come in contact with anyone who seems to possess super powers. Talent? Sure. Hard work and drive? Absolutely. Writing skills? Nah, I just threw that in there. Of course, we do, I must modestly concede, but it’s not really a super power. Yet all that changed this week when we caught Zaila Avant-garde in action.
For those who have not had the pleasure, Avant-garde recently won the 2021 Scripps National Spelling Bee. She’s 14 years old and from the New Orleans area. She’s also the first African-American person to win the title in the bee’s 96-year history. But here’s the really amazing part: Spelling is just one of her super powers, perhaps even a minor one. What she’s really good at is basketball. She holds three Guinness World Records in dribbling.
Hello? World records. Just 14 years old. If that doesn’t sound like a member of the Avengers, or perhaps their sporty equivalents, I don’t know what does. She can dribble six basketballs at a time. She can juggle four.
Could Black Widow do that? Doubtful. Wonder Woman? Maybe. But then let’s see Princess Diana of Themyscira correctly spell “murraya,” “retene,” “ancistroid” and “depreter” as Avant-garde did. I don’t even know what those words mean, and two paragraphs ago I was claiming super writing skills. And as far as I can tell, she never received a dose of super serum, an accidental exposure to gamma radiation or a high-tech suit of armor.
This is awesome. And it’s especially amazing because it breaks the common assumption that top Scripps competitors are singularly devoted to Latin, Greek and geeky-ness. Unless, of course, she’s the product of a Skinner box that covers both dribbling basketballs and memorizing the dictionary.
Will there be an Avant-garde movie? That seems unlikely given how Hollywood treats young women: usually as an outsider who yearns for acceptance, has a goofy best friend and a budding romance. White men still dominate the comics universes. Women are more often sidekicks. Same with people of color. Wakanda may be forever, but Black Panther is a fistful of movies behind the Hulk, who is technically green but only when he’s angry. And brain power? Iron Man and Ant Man probably scored high on their SATs (sorry, Vision, but the College Board doesn’t allow computers). Sadly, smarts are more often associated with scheming bad guys like Doctor Doom. Russian hackers fit the profile.
So here is my proposal: The world needs to celebrate Zaila Avant-garde beyond the traditional 15 minutes of fame. Movie or miniseries, action figure or T-shirt, she’s a natural. She has set the example for the rest of us. Sure, it’s easy to celebrate the muscle-bound man who throws the hardest punch or travels faster than a speeding bullet. But for those of us who can’t spell accommodate (thanks, spell check) or dribble one basketball let alone six, she’s about as close to superhuman as we’re going to witness.
The fact she’s an actual person with a Hollywood-worthy name is just the icing on the cake. Someone who strives for such excellence at 14 is destined to do great things as an adult. Maybe even save the planet without throwing a punch.