The actor Chadwick Boseman’s death, from cancer in August 2020, was a breathtaking shock. With his performance as Marvel’s Black Panther, Mr. Boseman became a towering figure, particularly for Black people who rarely get to see ourselves depicted as heroes on the screen.
As T’Challa, bearer of the mantle of Black Panther, Mr. Boseman expanded our cultural imaginations. He was the king of Wakanda, an uncolonized Black nation and the most technologically advanced country in the world. He made it seem as if anything was possible. An excellent actor playing an excellent role, Mr. Boseman was so intertwined with his superhero persona that many proclaimed no one else could ever step into the role of T’Challa — that no one should.
And indeed Kevin Feige, the president of Marvel Studios, announced in 2020 that out of respect for Mr. Boseman, Marvel would not recast the role. In Hollywood, however, only intellectual property is truly sacred, and the franchise must go on. Marvel will release the sequel “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” in November, with Ryan Coogler returning as director.
The film’s teaser trailer, released last month at Comic-Con International in San Diego, is dazzling but cryptic. It focuses on the women characters who surrounded Black Panther in the first film: his girlfriend, Nakia; mother, Ramonda; sister, Shuri; and the warrior Okoye, his bodyguard. Meanwhile, T’Challa is represented only in what looks like a memorial mural. While the franchise must go on, this beloved character appears unlikely to venture into that future, even if Black Panther lives on.
In the character’s mythology, King T’Challa inherited the title of Black Panther from a line of ancestors, along with powers derived from a magical herb — so it’s logically possible that it would be passed along to someone else if T’Challa died. At the end of the trailer, there is a brief, partial glimpse of a black-costumed figure — legs lunging forward, a right arm extending into five lethal claws — giving fans the impression that someone else will become the Black Panther. (The trailer set off a flurry of internet speculation about who that character is.)
Upon the trailer’s release, the hashtag #recastTChalla emerged on social media, with fans arguing that the role of T’Challa should be played by another actor, much in the same way that white superheroes have been recast again and again, whether it’s Batman or Wonder Woman or Spider-Man or Magneto. Mr. Boseman’s loss was a tragedy, the advocates for recasting said, but should that mean the end of this iconic Black character, when the character still had so much story left to tell?
A petition with more than 60,000 signatures asks Marvel “NOT to use the tragic passing of Chadwick Boseman as a plot device in their fictional storytelling” and “for the portrayal of T’Challa to be allowed to continue” in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. “If Marvel Studios removes T’Challa, it would be at the expense of the audiences (especially Black boys and men) who saw themselves in him,” the petition on Change.org argues.
This might seem like just another attempt to influence Hollywood’s storytelling from an increasingly demanding fandom, but there is a sharp yearning driving the movement to recast King T’Challa — a yearning to hold onto what Chadwick Boseman represented. Especially among Black fans, there is a genuine fear that without T’Challa, the Black Panther story line could lose its sense of power and possibility. I hear the pain thrumming beneath calls to recast T’Challa. I empathize with it.
Superhero fandoms are complicated beasts. Fans are passionate and are also often inflexibly opinionated about how their beloved stories should be told. (I saw this firsthand when I co-wrote a comic book series set in the world of Wakanda, with Ta-Nehisi Coates.)
In recent years, filmmakers have increasingly performed what’s known as “fan service” — making creative choices that acknowledge or acquiesce to the desires of fans. At its best, fan service is charming. It allows fans to feel seen and heard. It allows them to believe they have a small hand in a huge creative endeavor. At its worst, fan service can be exploitative, sexist or racist. Very often, it panders, making a movie or show feel as though it has no distinct point of view or creative vision, that the creators’ desperation for public approval has trumped good storytelling or creative ambition.
There was no choice Marvel and Mr. Coogler could have made that would please everyone. If they recast King T’Challa, many would have thought it too soon after Mr. Boseman’s death. If they simply disappeared him for a movie by inventing a reason to place him on a mission somewhere, his absence would have been a distraction. Killing him off, as they appear to have done, has angered some.
And, unfortunately, whichever character, and actor, takes on the mantle of Black Panther next will bear the brunt of fans’ doubts, disappointment and derision — particularly if the new Black Panther will be, as some have speculated, a woman. Heaven forbid! (We’ve seen this time and again, most notably in the Star Wars franchise, where actors of color have endured unconscionable harassment for contradicting certain fans’ notions of who can be heroic in our imagined, interstellar futures.)
For the time being, the filmmakers made the best decision they could. It would be deeply unfair to expect any actor, however talented, to step into the massive shoes Mr. Boseman left behind. The new King T’Challa would forever compete with our memory of the original. The successor would be expected to somehow channel Mr. Boseman’s swagger and gravitas, to replace the irreplaceable. And when the actor who plays the new king inevitably disappointed audiences for not actually being Mr. Boseman, he would become the target of intense ire. We should not ask anyone to be placed in that line of fire.
The #RecastTChalla movement seems well intended. But the fundamental issue isn’t whether or not a role in one movie should be recast; it’s about what representation demands. Black Panther, in 2018, bore the weight of outsize fan expectations, as a groundbreaking Black superhero leading a major film. That is an unreasonable burden to place on one character, on one actor, on one film. Black people — men and boys as mentioned in the petition, but also women and girls — should have more than one superhero to enjoy and see themselves in. So should people of other races and ethnicities, cultures and identities. We should not be asking Marvel to recast T’Challa; we should be asking it to expand the roster of heroes. We have to think bigger and demand more.
Whatever happens in the next Black Panther movie, the #RecastTChalla proponents may ultimately get their wish. In recent years, Marvel has introduced us to the multiverse, which allows for multiple realities to coexist (and for infinite extensions of its intellectual property). In the multiverse, there may be realities where T’Challa is alive and well and saving the world as Black Panther. We may still see some of those stories.
In the meantime, we, too, can be more expansive in our imaginings. T’Challa doesn’t have to be the only hero we look up to. However incremental, we have seen progress in recent years. Marvel’s Spider-Verse includes the Black and Puerto Rican Brooklyn teenager Miles Morales as Spider-Man; the Muslim superhero Kamala Khan is on Disney+ as Ms. Marvel; Captain America passed on his shield to the Falcon, a Black hero played by Anthony Mackie. We now have Shang-Chi and America Chavez, and at DC, Nubia and Cyborg. Outside of Marvel and DC, a new crop of creators — Ava DuVernay, Mindy Kaling, Michaela Coel and Shonda Rhimes among them — are exploring rich new universes and frontiers of human heroism. We can also see, if we look for it, that there are heroes walking among us — people in our communities who are doing incredible things every single day.
In November, we will likely meet a new Black Panther, who will once again shoulder the unreasonable burden of representation. If we are lucky, this actor will also entertain us and inspire us and ignite our imaginations. I cannot think of a better way to honor Chadwick Boseman’s on-screen legacy.
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