Filming resumed this week on Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, with director Ryan Coogler overseeing what is said to be another four weeks of work at Marvel’s Atlanta-area production complex before the film wraps principal photography.
This last stretch picks up where the project left off in November, which is when it shut down for an extended, nearly two-month break. Said to be in attendance and working on this last round of shooting is star Letitia Wright, who plays Shuri, the sister of T’Challa and Wakanda’s brilliant technological innovator.
This all sounds reasonably normal for a big-budget production, except perhaps for that longer-than-usual holiday break. But the story behind it may or may not be so straightforward at all. In fact, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever may turn out to be, for a variety of reasons, the most difficult project that Marvel Studios has undertaken to date–raising some interesting questions about the future of the Black Panther sub-franchise.
The Story So Far
As the entire world knows, actor Chadwick Boseman, who played T’Challa in four Marvel Studios films–including 2018’s groundbreaking and paradigm-changing Black Panther—died of cancer in August 2020, gone far too soon at the age of 43. While intending to press on with what was then known as Black Panther II, Marvel officially made it clear that the role of T’Challa would not be recast, and that the script and narrative for the sequel would be realigned accordingly.
To this day, even with filming nearly complete, no one outside of Marvel knows exactly what that means. The usual airtight cone of Marvel silence has been clamped securely over the production. But with Marvel ruling out a new actor to play T’Challa, most speculation focused on someone else assuming the Black Panther mantle with the likeliest candidate being Wright’s Shuri. Both the character and the actor were breakout favorites from the first film, and Shuri donning the suit has precedent in the comics.
As with just about every other film in Hollywood, production on what was eventually announced as Black Panther: Wakanda Forever was delayed by the COVID pandemic, with cameras finally rolling in June 2021. Coogler returned to direct, and most of the original cast came back as well.
But then Wright suffered injuries on the set in late August, with the actor returning home to England to recuperate while Coogler continued filming everything that didn’t involve Shuri. As he ran out of material to shoot in November, and with Wright needing more time to heal from what was now said to be a more serious injury than initially reported, the production shut down.
The Letitia Wright Factor
The reports of her injury were not the first time Wright was in the news in the past couple of years.
In December 2020, she posted a video on Twitter that questioned the science and safety of the COVID vaccines that were being prepared for mass distribution in early 2021, as well as vaccines overall. Although she later took the video down, Wright pushed back against other Twitter users who accused her of being an anti-vaxxer, saying that she wasn’t telling people not to get vaccinated but that the video “raised [her] concerns with what the vaccine contains and what we are putting in our bodies.”
According to the Hollywood Reporter, Wright split with her U.S. representatives as a result of the video backlash while allegedly continuing to air anti-vax views on the set of Wakanda Forever.
After Wright went home to recover from her injury, and with filming shutting down in the latter months of 2021, Marvel sent a memo to everyone involved in the production, saying (via Deadline), “What we had initially thought were minor injuries turned out to be much more serious, with Letitia suffering a critical shoulder fracture, and a concussion with severe side effects. It has been a painful process and Letitia has been home recovering with her doctors and the support of family.”
But rumors began to swirl around the holidays that Wright would actually not come back at all–not because of her injuries, but because she refused to get vaccinated, a requirement to re-enter the U.S. and to work on a Disney set. But the Hollywood Reporter confirmed last week that Wright would be on set when filming resumed, adding that any issue regarding her vaccination status “had been resolved.”
THR also mentioned, however, that it was “unclear” whether Wright’s “elevated status” in the new movie–in which she was promoted to a lead role–“will continue beyond this sequel.”
Who Will Be The New Black Panther?
Her injuries aside (and we genuinely hope she is safely and fully recovered), will Letitia Wright become the new Black Panther, either now or in the future?
If–and this is a big, unsourced, unconfirmed, totally speculative “if”–any hesitation on her part to get vaccinated further delayed the production of Wakanda Forever, it’s hard to imagine Disney wanting to continue working with her after this. The anti-vax issue will already be a major headache for the studio when it comes to a press tour for the film, assuming she participates.
She may still become the Black Panther for this film at least. Or Coogler and Marvel could have done even more rewrites to change that outcome by the time the movie is over. Neither the director, the studio, nor the corporate parent may want to have someone even briefly associated with the deadly anti-vax movement as one of the major faces of the MCU going forward.
So if not Shuri, then who?
Two other obvious choices are Okoye and Nakia. Okoye, played by Danai Gurira, is another fan favorite: the head of the Dora Milaje, in charge of Wakandan security, and a fierce force to be reckoned with in her own right, Okoye has the strategic and physical skills to more than ably handle herself in the Black Panther suit.
The same would apply with Nakia, played by Lupita Nyong’o. One of T’Challa’s elite War Dogs, and his ex-lover, Nakia’s work as an undercover agent has already put her in the world outside Wakanda in perhaps a more immersive way than either Shuri or Okoye. Like Okoye, Nakia is a skilled, dangerous warrior who is quite capable of becoming the Panther. She was also the one pushing T’Challa to engage with the outside world, foster global humanitarian goals, and basically adopt the new stance he landed on at the end of the first movie.
Then there is M’Baku, played by Winston Duke. Another breakout from the first film, the head of the Jabari Tribe challenged T’Challa for the right to be the Black Panther in the opening scenes of the first film, starting out as an antagonist and rival but eventually becoming a valuable and trusted ally by the time Avengers: Infinity War rolled around. Clearly, however, M’Baku felt he could handle the role of Black Panther–so will he make his case this time around to claim it again?
Interestingly, in its report about Wright returning to the set and filming resuming, THR noted that Winston Duke had “negotiated a hefty raise for his return to Black Panther due to what is being described as an expanded role in the Panther mythos.”
The T’Challa Question
Here’s a completely off-the-wall idea: with the MCU now fully exploring the ramifications of the multiverse, what if another actor walked onto the set of Wakanda Forever saying that he was T’Challa — only a T’Challa from another universe?
Okay, that’s perhaps a bit too much of a stretch. But after fans initially embraced Marvel’s decree that the role of T’Challa would be retired after Boseman’s death, opinion has now gradually begun swinging in the other direction (as evidenced by the existence of, what else, a petition).
The worldwide grief over the death of Boseman, combined with the immense presence and identity that he brought to the role of T’Challa, are perhaps the two most dominant factors in Marvel’s respectful decision not to recast the part. But by doing so, the company may have also backed itself into a corner narratively.
With the exit of Iron Man, Captain America, and Black Widow from the MCU, T’Challa was no doubt intended to be one of the leading characters of Phase 4 and beyond, if not also the leader of a reconstituted Avengers. But the sad events of the real world changed that. In a relatively short time, Boseman had become as inextricably linked to T’Challa as Robert Downey Jr. was to Tony Stark or Chris Evans to Steve Rogers.
But Marvel has recast parts before, notably the Hulk and War Machine. Could they have done the same with T’Challa, after a respectful interval? There is certainly no shortage of talented Black actors to fill the role, including (but not limited to) Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, John David Washington, Kingsley Ben-Adir, Aldis Hodge (although he’s just starting out as Hawkman in the DC Universe), Isaiah Mustafa, and many more.
We don’t know what the right answer is in this situation. For many fans, it’s all about honoring the memory of Boseman, whose own wishes will never be known. For others, taking the character of T’Challa off the board not only deprives the MCU of one of its greatest heroes, but deprives Black culture of one of its most vital and massive pop culture icons. There never was an easy solution.
Since the recasting of T’Challa appears to be all too unlikely, the question remains: What or who is the future of Black Panther?
We can certainly see a narrative in Wakanda Forever in which Okoye, Nakia, Shuri, and M’Baku all vie for the title, or perhaps agree to share it–a move that would certainly confound their enemies. The intrigue involved in any of those plot threads already makes for some tantalizing possibilities. We don’t envy the position that Coogler and Marvel find themselves in, but at the same time, we have yet to be disappointed by them. We certainly trust Marvel’s ability to continually create movie magic.
But whether Shuri takes the crown or exits stage left, whether M’Baku sheds his furs for a vibranium onesie, the important thing is that Wakanda persists. We may have lost its king, its major representative, and one of the greatest superheroes in Marvel history, but the wondrous, forward-facing vision of an advanced, Afro-centric civilization that he represented will endure. Wakanda forever, indeed.
Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is slated to open in theaters on November 11, 2022.