After Chadwick Boseman died in 2020 of Stage 4 colon cancer, the future of “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” was suddenly up in the air.
A script for the highly anticipated sequel to “Black Panther,” the billion-dollar-grossing cultural phenomenon, had already been written. The story was set to be a clash between two kings, Boseman’s T’Challa the Black Panther and Namor the Sub-Mariner, the superpowered mutant king of Marvel’s seas. The two superheroes are intense rivals within the pages of Marvel Comics, and their movie showdown was going to be an event just as big as any “Avengers” movie. Writer-director Ryan Coogler and his co-writer Joe Robert Cole were left with the difficult task of finding a new story after the death of its titular star.
Recasting Boseman was never considered. Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige told Empire magazine that “it just felt like it was much too soon to recast,” a sentiment that was shared by Coogler and many of the cast members. A CGI version of Boseman’s King T’Challa was also not on the table, leaving Coogler and Cole with the only option that felt like it could properly pay respect to the friend everyone had just lost: incorporating Boseman’s death into the story itself.
As a result, “Wakanda Forever” is a film about death, the grief that comes with it and succession of power in the most difficult of circumstances.
“It was very therapeutic, very cathartic, to be able to use what was going on in our lives in the work ... the vulnerability, the strength, the grief of that moment,” star Angela Bassett told The Washington Post in an interview at a premiere of the film at the National Museum of African American History and Culture.
As the movie begins, King T’Challa of Wakanda has died, and the women of Wakanda - Queen Ramonda (Bassett), Princess Shuri (Letitia Wright), Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) and Okoye (Danai Gurira), leader of the elite all-female Wakandan warriors the Dora Milaje - are left to mourn while they must continue to lead the most powerful nation in the world.
The Black Panther’s death is not a spoiler. It has long been known since Coogler and Cole began their rewrite that the character’s death would be a part of the story. Both trailers for the film have featured a Wakandan funeral procession with all involved wearing white. Wright’s Shuri is seen holding on to her brother’s Black Panther mask during the memorial.
It’s also not a spoiler to say “Wakanda Forever” will also see a new female Black Panther rise. In the world of the Black Panther, both in the comics and on screen, the mantle is passed down from generation to generation, so such a change should not come as a shock to those who are familiar with the lore. The first “Wakanda Forever” trailer hinted at the new Black Panther with a quick glance of a black gloved hand unsheathing its claws. The second trailer ended with a full head-to-toe look at the new leader of Wakanda. Marvel Studios has not released any footage of this new Black Panther unmasked, but her identity is out there in comic books and on toy boxes for those that must know.
The film’s gaze toward the future would not happen without its acknowledgment of the past. At the museum screening, Nyong’o said that when Coogler walked her through “Wakanda Forever’s” script she wept tears of relief knowing that the story would not ignore the very real loss everyone in the cast was feeling before coming on set.
“It meant that I could bring my grief to work and put it to good use. That my grief could be very much a part of the creative process. And that meant a lot,” Nyong’o said. “This film is art imitating life like nothing I’ve ever seen. The loss that we feel is the loss that the fan base feels. And so, the fact that [Ryan] chose to explore grief and how we move forward when we’ve experienced tragedy like this, I think is just testament to how truthful Ryan is as a filmmaker. He’s loves human beings and is really interested in exploring the human condition, and he uses this platform to do that without compromising the spectacle and the fun and the adventure of it all.”
Winston Duke, who plays the powerful M’Baku of the Jabari tribe (rivals to Wakanda in “Black Panther” and allies in the sequel) says “Wakanda Forever” is a fitting tribute to Boseman.
“There was a lot of conversation always about why not recast. Well, we’re dealing with real people,” Duke said. “Everyone involved was close to Chadwick because that’s the nature of our business. He was already a hero before his death. He already meant something to so many people before his death. He was already people’s prince, someone’s king, before his death.
“This was just an opportunity for us to honor who we knew, who represented [the Black Panther] so well,” he added. “... We’ll get another T’Challa one day. But now’s not the time. Let it be what it is.”