Some free association on the shocking loss of an actor whose success felt like the start of a more inclusive Hollywood, and whose flagship franchise is now too important to be retired.
As I’ve noted in the handful of times I’ve written posts of this nature, this is not intended as an obituary (Odie Henderson wrote a beautiful one at RogerEbert.com), nor a career retrospective (rent 42, Get On Up, Gods of Egypt and, if you have Netflix NFLX , watch Da 5 Bloods). It is a commercially-specific article related to a specific franchise which is now in turmoil due to the shocking passing of a specific actor. And if anything, the focus on franchises and IP over the last decade has made this kind of thing more common. When Robin Williams died six years ago, there was little to do but mourn and seek out some of his best work. But the likes of Carrie Fisher, Paul Walker and, yes, Chadwick Boseman are indeed linked to a specific ongoing franchise that will presumably carry on after their passing.
Chadwick Boseman’s rise via playing real-life historical figures (Jackie Robinson, James Brown and Thurgood Marshall) was both a running joke (Was Black Panther going to be structured like a biopic?) and a testament to his talent. His performances as Robinson and Brown were as diametrically opposed as you could imagine, and his scorching charisma in small roles in Draft Day, Da 5 Bloods and, yes, Gods of Egypt (where his is hilarious annoyance at having to aid two idiot white heroes makes for a deliciously meta performance) was the definition of “star power.” But could he become a “butts in the seats” movie star, along the lines of (relatively speaking) Eddie Murphy, Denzel Washington and Will Smith? In a just industry, he would get the same star vehicle opportunities gifted to the likes of Ryan Reynolds, Michael Fassbender and Josh Brolin as a matter of course.
But to pretend that his biggest impact wasn’t his four turns at playing T’Challa, Prince and then King of Wakanda in the Marvel Cinematic Universe would be disingenuous. And it is no more a slight to say that Chadwick is defined in the eyes of many general moviegoers by Black Panther than it would be to argue that Harrison Ford’s performances as Han Solo and Indiana Jones were indeed more impactful to the masses than his roles in The Mosquito Coast or Morning Glory. So his shocking death at the age of 43 from colon cancer does indeed impact the ongoing artistic and commercial plans for both Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther 2 and the MCU as a whole, just as the deaths of Carrie Fisher and Paul Walker impacted Star Wars and The Fast and the Furious. So, where does the franchise go from there?
First of all, there will be a Black Panther 2 in some form opening either May 6, 2022 or sometime later. Black Panther earned $700 million in North America and $1.346 billion worldwide, bigger than (sans inflation) any solo superhero movie ever. And while its success showed that comic book/superhero fans and general audiences had no issue with a Black superhero or a story existing in a fantastical African country, it also obviously appealed to Black audiences who had little interest or knowledge in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The franchise means too much commercially to now-franchise-lite Walt Disney DIS and its earned goodwill means too much to a post-Endgame MCU to let it exist as a single movie. And yes, the franchise means too much to too many fans. So the question is whether to recast T’Challa or acknowledge reality by writing him out.
One of the benefits of Marvel’s commitment to large supporting casts of heroes and helpers is that almost every marquee character has a potential sub waiting in the things. If Paul Rudd couldn’t do Ant-Man 3, Evangeline Lilly’s Wasp would just go solo. If Chris Hemsworth bowed out of Thor: Love and Thunder, then Jane Foster and/or Valkyrie would take up the hammer, which is essentially what’s happening anyway. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 introduced an entire team of potential substitute Guardians who might have been called up had Disney not rehired James Gunn and Dave Bautista, Chris Pratt and Zoe Saldana refused to return. If Marvel ever needs an Iron Man 4, Gwyneth Paltrow’s Pepper Potts and/or Don Cheadle’s War Machine is ready to suit up. Under different circumstances, letting Letitia Wright’s Shuri take over as Black Panther/ruler of Wakanda would be an easy call.
However, the character of T’Challa is arguably more important to the general audiences than both other MCU characters and the actor who played him. Marquee characters are more important than movie stars. Folks showed up to Joker and Bohemian Rhapsody Rocketman because they wanted Joker and Freddy Mercury movies, not because they were all-in for Joaquin Phoenix and Rami Malek. The Force Awakens and Black Panther didn’t make Pacific Rim: Uprising or 21 Bridges into hits. This isn’t an original character created by a specific actor, like Paul Walker’s Bryan Mills or Carrie Fisher’s Lea Organa. Sans context, this would be little different than Val Kilmer subbing for Michael Keaton in Batman Forever. There’s a case to be made that merely having the character of T’Challa live on even with a different actor, is of equal/greater value versus Boseman’s performance existing as the only live-action incarnation.
The “good” news is that both options, letting someone else become the ruler of Wakanda or recasting T’Challa, are both reasonable choices which probably won’t negatively impact Black Panther 2’s commercial or artistic reception. Black Panther 2 was always going to be huge, so this won’t be a Dark Knight/Furious 7 situation where the deaths of Heath Ledger and Paul Walker turn their respective sequels into a much bigger hits. Still, the sheer flood of “random celebrity expresses sadness of Chadwick Boseman’s death” blog posts we’ve seen since Friday are a taste of what will come as implicit marketing for Black Panther 2. Just as every media event for Furious 7 became a chance for Vin Diesel or other filmmakers associated with Fast/Furious to toast their fallen comrade, so too, intentional or not, will every (presumably genuine) utterance concerning Boseman be turned into SEO-friendly media coverage.
What his potential ongoing commercial and critical success might have meant to the next generation of Black (and non-white) actors means the complications concerning Black Panther 2 are the smallest portion of a larger tragedy. Chadwick Boseman’s breakout role in 42 signaled a great (non-white) hope that he might be a true-blue movie star given the opportunities afforded his white peers as a matter of course. But in terms of what it means for Black Panther 2, it simply means that the movie will have to either recast or find someone else in the film’s robust supporting cast (be it Wright or someone else) to be the lead hero in the next chapter. Whatever becomes of the MCU sequel, Boseman will take his place alongside James Dean and Bruce Lee. It is cruelly ironic that Boseman’s short life will now become a great movie biopic.