Chadwick Boseman’s death from colon cancer, at the age of just 43, has sent shockwaves around the world. Not only was Boseman one of the world’s most prominent black actors, but in Black Panther he headlined a film that revolutionised Hollywood with its largely black cast and director. That it was a Marvel Cinematic Universe episode, ensuring that huge audiences flocked to see it, only added to the sense of cultural norms being transformed.
Disney has rightly made it clear that future plans for Black Panther have been placed on hold to give the Marvel team time to grieve. And yet speculation has begun as to how the studio will take the character forward. This is a movie that took $1.3bn at the global box office, as well as winning three Oscars and huge critical acclaim. Under normal circumstances, a sequel would be inevitable.
Indeed, Marvel was due to begin filming Black Panther 2 in March. According to industry reports, however, the studio has been almost completely blindsided by its star’s death. Boseman would likely have been expected to appear as T’Challa in a number of other Marvel films and Disney+ spin-offs, such is the nature of the franchise.
The situation recalls those of Fast and Furious’s Paul Walker and Star Wars’ Carrie Fisher, whose untimely deaths also left studios floundering. Walker died in a car crash in November 2013, while still filming Furious 7, which ended up being completed with his brothers as body doubles. Fisher had not shot any scenes for last year’s Rise of Skywalker when she died suddenly in December 2016, but Disney ultimately chose to feature her through the use of footage from previous films.
Yet the position regarding Boseman is very different. He wasn’t just part of the Black Panther cast, he played its central character; it is nearly impossible to imagine future episodes without him. Recasting the role of T’Challa is inconceivable right now, though it is possible that as time goes on, thoughts may turn to possible ways forward.
One mooted idea has been to promote the hugely popular Shuri, played by British actor Letitia Wright, to the mantle of Black Panther. The concept has roots in Marvel’s comics, and the very nature of the Black Panther is that it is a title often passed from one candidate to another. The crucial ingredient here would be time – it is hard to imagine Wright suiting up for the Black Panther sequel, due for release as early as 2022, without a fan backlash.
Let us hope that Marvel finds a way to avoid clever digital trickery or body doubles. Coogler’s Black Panther was such a trailblazing film precisely because it brooked no compromises with its source material. It deserves to stand alone. Accommodating Hollywood’s financial need for a sequel seems somehow antithetical to the spirit of righteous, nonconformist, proudly Afrocentric conviction that drove Coogler’s vision to such heights in the first place.