Does ‘Black Panther’ Have A Future?

For many people who will be reading this page right now, ‘Black Panther’ is the most impactful movie that Disney/Marvel has ever made. We’ve all seen superhero films before, but we’re used to seeing black people relegated to secondary roles in those superhero films. Successive generations of Hollywood movies have told us that black people can hang out with superheroes, but they can never become superheroes. ‘Black Panther’ changed all that and proved that movies in this genre starring black people could become huge successes at the box office. It was inevitable that a sequel would be planned, and until very recently, that sequel was scheduled to start filming in 2021.

We all know about the tragedy that will prevent that from happening. Unbeknown to anyone other than those who were very close to him, Chadwick Boseman spent the past four years battling against severe illness. He was sick when he filmed ‘Black Panther.’ He was sick when he filmed the final ‘Avengers’ movie. He carried on working for as long as he could, but the world lost Chadwick Boseman last month, aged only 43, and long before his time. Plans for the sequel were thrown into immediate disarray, but that was the least of anyone’s concerns. The world had lost a tremendous acting talent, and a generation of young black people and children had lost their hero. Boseman is hugely missed, and the fact of his passing is still sinking in.

Having taken a few weeks to process what happened to Chadwick Boseman, Marvel executives will be wrestling with the question of what to do with their proposed second standalone ‘Black Panther’ film. Martin Freeman, Danai Gurira, and Letitia Wright are all under contract to appear in the sequel. A script, written by Ryan Coogler, has already been completed. Coogler, who wasn’t party to Boseman’s illness and was deeply affected by his passing, has already confirmed that he wrote the script with Boseman in mind, and can’t imagine anyone else speaking the dialogue that he’s written for him. Nevertheless, the production time has already been booked, and the proposed release date of May 2022 is already penciled into the diary. Dates can always be moved, but Marvel will very soon have to decide what they’re going to do with ‘Black Panther 2.’ Do they try to cast someone else in the role that Chadwick Boseman made famous, or do they rip up everything they have and start again? Alternatively, might they give up on the idea of doing another ‘Black Panther’ at all – at least for a few years?

To some viewers, the very idea of recasting Boseman is out of the question. To them, he is T’Challa, and putting anyone else in his shoes would be sacrilege. Social media is full of people swearing that they won’t go and see ‘Black Panther’ without Boseman in it, and that they’d be offended by anyone who accepted his most famous part. Any decision to recast Boseman’s part would be controversial and lead to accusations of disrespect and money-grabbing. Making money, though, is what movie studios are all about. It’s like owning the house as a casino, or (to put it in modern terms), owning an online slots website. Your audience doesn’t have to win every time so long as you have their money. Many people have left movie theaters unhappy with what they’ve seen, but the people who made the film still got paid, just in the same way that people log off online slots websites unhappy with their losses, but the company that owns the site banked their cash anyway. Perhaps this is the aptest of all comparisons, given the fact that Marvel once owned a series of slots until they pulled them all at short notice a little over a year ago. Controversial or not, a new ‘Black Panther’ movie is bound to make money, and that’s an incentive for Marvel to create one.

There are examples of famous roles being successfully recast in the past. Nobody believed that anyone could surpass Jack Nicholson’s performance as the Joker in ‘Batman’ until Heath Ledger did it, and then Ledger was seen as the ‘definitive’ Joker. When Ledger passed, people wondered how anyone would be able to play the part ever again without looking like a lesser actor by comparison. Jared Leto tried and failed. Joaquin Phoenix succeeded and has redefined the character once more. Anthony Hopkins terrified millions of cinema-goers as Hannibal Lecter in ‘Silence of the Lambs,’ and he did such a good job in the role that most people have forgotten that Brian Cox played the character in ‘Manhunter’ five years earlier. So long as the performer is good enough and the script is strong, any role can be recast. Audiences can be persuaded to move on. The transition is achievable.

The difference between the films we’ve just mentioned and ‘Black Panther’ is that they weren’t as strongly connected. If someone other than Heath Ledger had played the Joker in another Christian Bale ‘Batman’ movie, it would have been more noticeable. If ‘Silence of the Lambs’ had been billed as ‘Manhunter II,’ the swapping of the lead actors would have been more closely scrutinized. It’s the fact that this is a sequel that’s bound to draw comparisons. Given the nature of Boseman’s role, any change would be as striking and unthinkable as recasting the part of Rocky Balboa away from Sylvester Stallone between the first and second of those movies.

There’s too much money on the table to leave ‘Black Panther’ alone forever, and there’s still an audience that wants to see new ‘Black Panther’ films. They just don’t necessarily want to see a direct continuation of what Chadwick Boseman started, with the remainder of the same cast in the film, but without Boseman. It would seem somehow perverse. It would feel wrong. We have to believe that ‘Black Panther’ has a future, but not in 2022. For the good of the franchise, and with respect to the memory of the man who made the part his own, it would be better to cancel the sequel and reboot the series with a new cast a few years down the line.