The Death of an Icon: Black Panther, and What Happens Next

Unless you’ve been living under a rock the past couple of weeks, you’ve probably heard the news. But if you haven’t:

Actor Chadwick Boseman, star of the Black Panther movie, died on August 28th of colon cancer. He was only 43, a rising star in Hollywood who was to be one of the leading faces of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s next generation of heroes. The public had no idea that he had cancer—had no idea that he had been having countless surgeries and chemotherapies since 2016, throughout strenuous filming for blockbusters Black Panther and Infinity War and Endgame—and when they finally did know, it was too late, and an icon was gone.

Well, maybe not gone, not quite. Because Chadwick Boseman’s role as T’Challa was more than just your average role, and Black Panther was more than just a movie. T’Challa was a black superhero in a mainstream, blockbuster Marvel movie, with a black director and a black cast. In a society where African-Americans are still underrepresented in American media and entertainment, the cultural impact of Black Panther was—and still is—huge. The movie was a rich tribute to traditional African culture while also not shying away from tackling the modern issues: being African-American in present-day America, the invisible scars of slavery and colonization, and the tug-of-war between nationalism and pan-Africanism. The movie was a resounding success—the ninth highest-grossing film of all time, and tellingly, fourth highest-grossing of all time in the US.

Left to right: Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), and Okoye (Danai Gurira), wearing the colours of the Pan-African flag.

But the thing about Black Panther is that it’s part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and like all MCU movies, never just a standalone. Plans for Black Panther 2 were underway before Black Panther itself even came out, but with a 2022 release date and its titular star gone… what happens now?

It’s the elephant in the room, the question which everyone is wondering about but which no one wants to be insensitive enough to actively discuss—but this is the Internet, and discussion is what we do best. So with as much tact and sensitivity as I can, I’d like to discuss: What might happen to the much-anticipated, high-stakes sequel?

Option 1: The Black Panther is recast

The Black Panther: A full-body suit, the face obscured.

Marvel Studios is no stranger to recasting its A-list actors. War Machine, Tony Stark’s best friend, was originally played by Terrence Howard but later replaced by Don Cheadle. Bruce Banner, the Hulk himself, was played by Edward Norton in the original but replaced by Mark Ruffalo for all the films thereafter.

On a surface level, recasting may appear to be the obvious solution: it’s simple, convenient, and even has a precedent. Sequel plans can stay the same, and the overarching plot threads of the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe will remain untangled and uncut. Things can be much the same as they were before.

But this plan has a glaring flaw, which is that people don’t want things to be much the same as they were before. Chadwick Boseman was a hero in his own right, admired by hundreds of thousands of fans. His death sent a shockwave throughout America and outwards to the rest of the world, sparking a mass outpour of grief from the casual movie-goer to the high-profile celebrity. Black Panther is a cultural icon, a piece of both superhero history and black history, and now cinematic history. And in the same way that Robert Downey Jr. is Iron Man, Chadwick Boseman also is the Black Panther.

And even the recasting of War Machine, a minor character, didn’t escape mass criticism. It’s still a jarring thing for me to reconcile the two very different faces of the character whenever I rewatch old Iron Man movies. With such an iconic character as T’Challa, a recasting would be tantamount to heresy for the hardcore fans. At worst, it’s a flagrant show of disrespect for Boseman, his death, and his fans; at best, it makes the MCU appear lazy and shamelessly insensitive.

Fans don’t want Boseman replaced; a recast would feel too much like the studio covering up a mistake and hoping the audience doesn’t notice. Boseman’s death, of course, is not something to be covered up—it’s something to be mourned and honoured, which is why there’s only one real option on the table that makes sense for the future of Black Panther.

Option 2: A little sister takes up the mantle

Shuri in battle—she may be more of a techie, but like Iron Man, she holds her own in a fight.

Rather than replacing such a singularly poignant character, someone can succeed him—adding to the legacy of the Black Panther, rather than substituting it. And who better to do so than T’Challa’s own little sister, Shuri?

As much as Chadwick Boseman blew audiences away with his gravitas, so too did co-star Letitia Wright steal the scenes with her feisty portrayal of sixteen-year-old Shuri. A fan-favourite ever since Black Panther was released, Shuri is every bit the genius tech inventor that MCU forebearer Tony Stark was, but filled with the spunky, sassy optimism of a teenage girl rather than the haunted, sardonic cynicism of a former weapons manufacturer.

While it might not be easy adjusting to the change from a studio executive or scriptwriter perspective, Shuri’s character is young, versatile, and perfectly primed for character growth and thematic explorations. How does one deal with such a huge, sudden, incomprehensible loss? If T’Challa dies in battle—which is likely the route the MCU will take in order to honour his legacy the best—how will Shuri deal with the likely feelings of guilt and self-blame, as the inventor of all of her brother’s tech that was supposed to keep him safe? How will she handle being thrust into power, handed a crown and a nation she never expected, prepared for, or wanted?

There are no “good” ways to handle the Black Panther franchise after such a staggering blow as Chadwick Boseman’s death. There are only horrible ways, and tolerable ways. Some fans will still find it rude, painful, and too-soon to install Shuri as the new Black Panther, with Boseman’s death a looming shadow in the public’s collective memory. Will the shadow fade, given time? Of course. Will it fade sufficiently by 2022, or whenever Black Panther 2 is released? Perhaps, perhaps not. It’s a delicate line to balance: continuing the story that is a cultural and cinematic triumph, without—while still honouring—the actor at the core of that triumph.

However it’s done, I trust in the team behind the MCU. If they can so deftly handle issues of race, identity, and the African diaspora as seen in Black Panther, then I have confidence they will also be able to handle the future of Black Panther with the sensitivity and respect it deserves.

May Chadwick Boseman rest in power—Wakanda forever, because his legacy is certainly far from over.

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