The following post contains SPOILERS for Black Panther: Wakanda Forever. (Duh.)
Every single person reading this knows what happened to Chadwick Boseman. The beloved actor died on August 28, 2020 after a private battle with colon cancer. Boseman had appeared in films like Draft Day, 42, and Get On Up, but he was best known as T’Challa, the superhero known as Black Panther in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Boseman had made four appearances as T’Challa prior to his death, in Captain America: Civil War, Black Panther, Avengers: Infinity War, and Avengers: Endgame. He was scheduled to reprise the role again in a Black Panther sequel, but obviously that was not to be. Marvel could have chosen to carry one as if Boseman’s death hadn’t happened; they could have recast the role of T’Challa and stuck to whatever their original plan for Wakanda Forever had been. Instead, writer/director Ryan Coogler decided to incorporate Boseman’s real-life death into the MCU, by making T’Challa’s death the inciting incident of the sequel.
There too, there were many paths Marvel and Coogler could have taken. They could have had T’Challa die in battle. They could have found some other way to remove him from the story for the short-term, while leaving the door open to recast the role down the line. Instead, they hewed about as closely to reality as this sort of superhero fantasy would allow. In the film’s opening minutes, T’Challa is dying of some incurable but unspecified illness. His sister Shuri (Letitia Wright) desperately tries to save his life.
Although the movie never gives any details about what illness killed T’Challa, it does explain how a superhero with enhanced strength and invulnerability could be felled by something as mundane as a disease. Under normal circumstances the Black Panther could be saved by ingesting the “Heart-Shaped Herb,” the magical Wakandan substance that gives the Panther his powers. But all of Wakanda’s Heart-Shaped Herbs were destroyed by Michael B. Jordan’s Killmonger in Black Panther. Shuri attempts to recreate it synethically but fails.
Sprinkled throughout the film are other allusions to Boseman’s real-life battle with cancer, which he kept private until his death. Characters in Wakanda Forever��imply that T’Challa approached his illness similarly, hiding it from many others around him until the very end of his life. That choice again allows Coogler to make Wakanda Forever even more personal; to explore how the film’s cast and crew were affected by this loss.
The movie does eventually push some of these emotions to the background in order to focus on the storyline involving a brewing war between Wakanda and Talokan, an ancient underwater civilization led by Namor. But the characters’ feelings about T’Challa are constantly alluded to, and they become very important to the climax of the movie. These also happen to be the most powerful scenes in the entire film. That is not a coincidence.
Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is in theaters now.
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