How do you make a superhero sequel without the superhero at the centre of the franchise? This was the impossible, unprecedented question that director Ryan Coogler faced in the summer of 2020, when Chadwick Boseman, star of Marvel’s Black Panther, died of colon cancer at 43. As fans mourned the actor’s passing, Coogler had to balance the grief of losing his close friend and collaborator while also attending to the billion-dollar dilemma dominating the halls of Marvel Studios. What, possibly, could be done about Black Panther 2?
The first film earned a whopping US$1.3-billion worldwide when it was released in 2018, becoming the ninth highest-grossing film of all time. Crucially, Coogler’s film also represented a milestone for Black representation onscreen – here, finally, was a mega-blockbuster that put heroes of colour front and centre for the entire world to see. A sequel was naturally inevitable, and perhaps even essential. Which is just what Coogler was working on at the time: another Boseman-starring adventure in which his hero, T’Challa, king of the scientifically advanced African nation of Wakanda, would be the lead. And then, suddenly, a gigantic, horrifying question mark arrived.
While some of Boseman’s co-stars have spoken of mixed emotions approaching any kind of Black Panther film absent its star – Lupita Nyong’o, who played T’Challa’s love interest in the first film, said that she “didn’t have doubts, I had dread” – Coogler knew that any trepidations had to be balanced with honouring Boseman’s legacy. Which meant continuing the story that he and his leading man started by expanding it beyond Black Panther himself.
This is how everyone – Coogler and his cast, Boseman’s family and his legion of fans – pushed past the unthinkable to get to this moment, the premiere of Black Panther: Wakanda Forever. The most unexpected chapter in the epic Marvel Studios success story, Coogler’s new film acknowledges real-life tragedy while also gently utilizing the tensions of grief to engineer a universe-expanding story. By diving deeper into the politics, culture and competing visions for Wakanda itself, Coogler’s sequel aims to supplant any dread that Boseman fans might be carrying into the film with a warm, restorative sense of hope.
“I think Lupita was dreading us handling it in a different way than what we were doing, but after we talked she felt better. I myself didn’t have dread. I felt like we were doing something that was honest and right,” Coogler says in an interview the week ahead of Wakanda Forever’s Nov. 11 release. “I was nervous, though. As I am whenever I’m getting ready to do something that has a great importance to me and my family and my life. I get quite a bit of anxiety. But I feel like we were doing something that Chad would approve of.”
Wearing a golden chain with a pendant featuring an image of Boseman in the centre, Coogler speaks in the quiet, reverent tones of a friend still in the process of mourning. The filmmaker, who made a tremendous splash with the 2013 drama Fruitvale Station before easily transitioning to the blockbuster realm with 2015′s Creed, built Wakanda Forever with co-writer Joe Robert Cole from a starting point of shock: the shock of grief, the shock of responsibility, the shock of impossible expectations.
“There was a level of devastation that is hard to put into words, because Chad wasn’t just my buddy, we were collaborative partners,” Coogler says. “I was writing a whole script for him, and I didn’t know what was coming.”
It was enough of a blow that Coogler briefly contemplated walking away from filmmaking altogether.
“It was the shock speaking when I was telling myself to get out of this business,” he recalls. “As that shock was wearing off, I started to think about the lessons that Chad gave to me during our time together – how he approached his passion of acting like it was a leadership by example type of thing. He lived honourably, sacrificing his time for his art. So the best way to honour that is to do the same thing. I had to keep going.”
Keeping Boseman’s family involved in the process, including his widow, Taylor Simone Ledward – though “they gave us our distance as creators,” Coogler says – the filmmaker went about recontextualizing Wakanda. Now it would be a nation suffering from a profound loss while also facing an unexpected enemy plumbed from the depths of the Marvel canon (Namor and the underwater kingdom of Atlantis, here renamed Tlālōcān to fit Mesoamerican influences) that acts as a mirror image to the country’s own history. Boseman’s presence is felt in every frame of the film, but it is Wakanda’s women – Nyong’o’s Nakia, Angela Bassett’s Queen Mother Ramonda, Letitia Wright’s Shuri – who lead the heroics this time.
Whether Wakanda Forever acts as closure for the Black Panther series or the beginning of a new era – and given the box-office tracking for the film, the answer seems obvious – it is unclear as yet whether Coogler will continue to explore the world that he and Boseman helped create.
“Honestly, how I approach my work is taking one project at a time,” he says. “I’ve had circumstances where I knew exactly what I wanted to do next early on and was able to string things together, but that’s not the best way that I work. We’ve all put four years of our lives into Black Panther, so first I want to make sure that we finish it the right way. After that, I plan to take some time and make a decision about what’s next.”
In the meantime, Boseman will remain, perhaps like Wakanda itself, forever a part of Coogler.
“I didn’t work through my grief on this film because I’m still working through it,” he says. “I probably will for the rest of my life.”
Black Panther: Wakanda Forever opens in theatres Nov. 11