Four years ago, the conversation surrounding Black Panther was about whether it would succeed or if it would set back the cause of all Black-led superhero films. If Black Panther didn’t do well, the thinking went, studio executives would take that as a sign that Black superheroes and action movies wouldn’t be worth investing in, as they did for years with female superheroes after Catwoman and Elektra bombed. The future — not just of the franchise but of Black representation within pop culture — appeared to hinge on whether people would see Black Panther in theaters.
The people responded, giving studio heads $1.345 billion reasons they should believe in Black heroes.
Now, as the sequel Wakanda Forever hits theaters on November 11, Black Panther is Marvel’s flagship franchise. Iron Man and Captain America, Marvel’s superstar heroes, completed their stories in Avengers: Endgame with one sacrificing himself to save the world and the other retiring. New heroes like Shang Chi and the Eternals are just being introduced. Black Panther is arguably the most popular property in the MCU.
With that power comes a whole new set of questions, from how the new film will live up to the excellence of the first movie to how this sequel even exists, considering the tragic death of Chadwick Boseman, who originated the role of T’Challa, a.k.a. Black Panther.
To understand the sky-high storytelling and financial expectations that Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is facing, it’s important to understand the current state of Marvel, the background on the production of this sequel, and the standard set by the first film. But if the franchise has taught us anything, it’s to always bet on Black Panther.
The first Black Panther movie was the best movie Marvel ever made
In over a decade of storytelling, Black Panther is the only Marvel movie to have an Academy Award Best Picture nomination. It’s with good reason.
There are certain movies that are so good that you wish you could experience them again for the very first time. Black Panther is one of those. I wish I could tap into the initial thrill of seeing T’Challa and his general Okoye (Danai Gurira) zoom into Wakanda, the joy of the waterfall celebration and T’Challa’s coronation ceremony, and blood-pumping excitement from the thumps and beats of the Wakandan score. I could watch (and have watched) the movie over and over, but those first-viewing feelings are still so magical.
Black Panther wasn’t just a visual and auditory spectacle, it was also a superhero story with depth. Within the story of T’Challa’s superheroism was a tale about political isolationism; Wakanda protected itself, perhaps selfishly, from the world around it. Black Panther was also an allegory about the ills of colonization and, at the same time, a power fantasy about what a wondrous Black civilization could look like if it went untouched by imperialism.
Lush storytelling combined with stellar performances from Boseman and the cast, thrilling action sequences, the intricate and thoughtful world-building of Wakanda, and a convincing villain in Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) made Black Panther the best movie Marvel has ever created.
Since its release in 2018, nothing Marvel has produced has come close to sparking the same kind of pop cultural conversations about race, representation, and colonialism. Black Panther pushed the genre forward, unlocking the potential of what a superhero movie could be.
Inevitably, Wakanda Forever will be compared to the first movie. Fans and the industry alike want to know whether it’s as excellent as the original. But the more pertinent question might be whether Marvel’s other movies are as good as the Black Panther franchise, and if not, what’s keeping them from that?
What is Black Panther without Chadwick Boseman?
The runaway success of Black Panther was just one of the reasons it was so shocking when star Chadwick Boseman died in 2020. Boseman, who was only 43, kept his personal life private; he had stage four colon cancer unbeknownst to his fans and many of his colleagues.
“I got to watch him through the years — advancing out of student theater, on to TV and film, and then finally cast as T’Challa. He was perfect. He had T’Challa’s royal spirit, the sense that he did not represent merely himself, but a nation,” wrote Ta-Nehisi Coates in a eulogy that was printed in Marvel comic books.
Coates explained that there was no explanation or any remedy against the cruelty of losing Boseman. The solace, he explained, would be in remembering Boseman’s legacy. “It is the thought,” he wrote “that just as Chad once walked into the City of the Dead and harnessed the energy of those who’d gone before him, so he too may be harnessed, by all those warriors to come.” In holding tight to Boseman’s memory — the light he brought to the world, and the inspiration he was to so many people — his power could be handed down to future generations.
Director Ryan Coogler, who had befriended Boseman during the first movie, was one of the people who didn’t know what his friend had been going through. In interviews, he explained that Boseman’s death was such a shock that Coogler almost quit filmmaking. Boseman was supposed to be part of the second movie and the future of Marvel; Coogler reported that his initial script for a Black Panther follow-up centered on T’Challa experiencing the grief of losing five years to Thanos’s snap.
That all had to change.
Wakanda Forever and the controversies surrounding its lead star
The new script, which Coogler co-wrote with Joe Robert Cole, instead focuses on the character’s sister Shuri (Letitia Wright) and mother Ramonda (Angela Bassett) dealing with T’Challa’s death. Coogler and Cole did not shy away from writing a story that mirrors Boseman’s death.
That the movie deals with Boseman’s passing isn’t a spoiler. Both the movie and its soundtrack have been described as tributes to his legacy. The movie’s trailers feature a funeral procession. The basic premise of Wakanda Forever is simple: Wakanda needs a new Black Panther to protect it, and the movie is about Shuri both choosing but finding it difficult to live up to her brother’s legacy.
Shuri was a beloved character thanks to her appearance in the first movie, in which Wright was charismatic and buoyant. Building a movie around her wouldn’t be too far-fetched, and in the comic books there’s precedent, as the Black Panther mantle has been passed from character to character.
But when the movie finally started production, it was plagued with starts and stops, including an injury that Wright suffered and a Covid outbreak in 2022. When it comes to the latter, THR reported in 2021 that Wright had shared anti-vaccine sentiments on social media and a source told them that Wright espoused the same anti-vaccine talking points on set in Atlanta. Wright denied those allegations but did not confirm that she was vaccinated.
Marvel doesn’t like its stars to be embroiled in controversy, especially since they’re signed for multiple movies. It’s not a coincidence that the actress has kept a low profile on the Wakanda Forever press tour. It was already tough enough to fill Boseman’s shoes and carry on his legacy, but Wright’s controversy doesn’t make it any easier.
Why Marvel needs Black Panther: Wakanda Forever
Since 2019’s Avengers: Endgame, Marvel has released six live-action movies and seven television shows, an absolute mountain of content in what it calls Phase 4. Endgame was what Marvel refers to as “Phase 3” — Marvel releases a series of interconnected movies that usually culminates in a team-up movie and refers to that batch of movies as a phase. The studio is now in Phase 4.
But of those six movies — Black Widow, Shang Chi, Eternals, Spider-Man: No Way Home, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, and Thor: Love and Thunder — only No Way Home, a collaboration with Sony, was able to break the billion-dollar worldwide box office mark. In the previous Marvels cycles, Black Panther, Captain Marvel, Captain America: Civil War, and both Infinity War and Endgame all passed that billion-dollar benchmark.
There are some caveats, though.
To be very clear, the pandemic affected those numbers. In 2019, when Captain Marvel came out, no one was risking contracting a serious illness to see it. Meanwhile, Black Widow was released in July 2021 in theaters and on streaming, the combination of which affected its box office numbers. Still, when No Way Home was released in December 2021, it did close to $2 billion worldwide. Multiverse of Madness and Love and Thunder were released in 2022, the same year as the blockbuster Top Gun: Maverick, but do not have box office numbers close to that figure, with $955 million and $760 million worldwide, respectively.
It’s also worth noting that Marvel’s Phase 3 movies (the aforementioned Black Panther and Captain Marvel) were all leading up to Infinity War and Endgame, which were touted as the final chapters to a decade of Marvel moviemaking. Those movies benefited from the “last chapter” bump that Infinity War and Endgame created.
That said, Marvel still hasn’t had the big Marvel-size, standalone success that it’s so used to. A lot of that is due to the turnover. The franchises’ biggest stars — Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson — have all passed the torch. I doubt they predicted that Benedict Cumberbatch’s Doctor Strange would get shown up in his own movie by Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen). They probably wouldn’t have killed her off if that were the case. Similarly, the studio likely anticipated that Thor: Love and Thunder would do better than Ragnarok at the box office (it hasn’t).
Granted, Marvel and its parent company Disney are still the most powerful entertainment entities in the game. When we talk about their failures, it’s relative to the successes they’ve already established.
Without giving too much away, Wakanda Forever soars, and maybe even surpasses its predecessor. Angela Bassett might well be the first actor in a Marvel movie to get an Oscar nomination. Wright, controversy or no controversy, delivers as Shuri. And Wakanda is as glorious as ever, with Coogler introducing even more depth into its politics and global standing.
When it comes to Marvel’s Phase 4, the Black Panther franchise is the big gun in Marvel’s war chest. But the stakes aren’t merely emotional, or even about the quality of its predecessor —Wakanda Forever also carries the pressure to deliver a Marvel-size hit. Marvel needs to prove it’s still Marvel. There’s no other franchise the studio has that would be able to handle that great responsibility.