About four hours before the news broke that Chadwick Boseman died after a four-year battle with colon cancer, I told my daughter I wanted to rewatch Black Panther. She grew up with the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and I am so fortunate to share with her a love of these comic book stories. We made plans to watch the film when she returned home after her late-summer vacation, and then tragedy struck. Chadwick Boseman played many iconic roles, but King T’Challa is the late actor at his most mythic. While marking a balance shift in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Black Panther also marked a cultural shift or, at least, the beginnings of one.
The Black Panther didn’t debut in his solo movie, however. Chadwick Boseman won the role and made his on-screen debut as T’Challa in Captain America: Civil War. In that film, T’Challa is an equally powerful figure who doesn’t align with either Cap or Iron Man. He’s an outside observer who has a very personal stake in the outcome of the film. While Cap and Iron Man both beat each other senseless and break apart the Avengers, T’Challa doesn’t make those same mistakes. He starts the film as a man out for vengeance and ends it as a man who seeks justice. (He even saves the life of the man he wanted to kill the entire film.)
This arc continues in Black Panther as he faces off against Michael B. Jordan’s Killmonger, his cousin and a man who became subsumed by vengeance. It all culminates with T’Challa’s decision to put Wakanda on the international stage to fully become a part of the global community.
But First, Let’s Talk About The Importance of Representation
In these ludicrous political times, “representation” has become a political buzzword that likely gives you one specific feeling or another. This feeling is likely based on which political ideology you cling to. Yet, representation is a very simple, apolitical human concept. In the US, white-identifying folks look to something more than racial make-up for their representation. When I was a kid, my brown-haired boys usually wanted to be Han Solo and blond kids usually wanted to be Luke Skywalker. However, I always chose Luke because I related to him in a significant way. I never met my father. So, when I saw that Luke also never met his father, it was special. During that time, there were few characters in children’s media whose mothers didn’t know who their fathers were. (Lest she be judged harshly by puritanical audiences.)
For black and brown kids, they didn’t have those kind of options. For playing pretend with Star Wars characters, they had Lando and that’s it. (No disrespect to the smoothest space pirate in any galaxy intended.) For the first time in a Marvel Studios film, people with black and brown skin outnumbered those with white skin in the cast. Not only that, these characters lived in a beautiful, dynamic, and futuristic society.
Image via Marvel Studios
As director Ryan Coogler wrote in his remembrance for Chadwick Boseman:
“We would often speak about heritage and what it means to be African. When preparing for the film, he would ponder every decision, every choice, not just for how it would reflect on himself, but how those choices could reverberate. ‘They not ready for this, what we are doing…’ ‘This is Star Wars, this is Lord of the Rings, but for us… and bigger!’
“He would say this to me while we were struggling to finish a dramatic scene, stretching into double overtime. Or while he was covered in body paint, doing his own stunts. Or crashing into frigid water, and foam landing pads. I would nod and smile, but I didn’t believe him. I had no idea if the film would work. I wasn’t sure I knew what I was doing. But I look back and realize that Chad knew something we all didn’t. He was playing the long game. All while putting in the work.”
Boseman thought deeply about the character and the world he inhabited. He and Coogler discussed Wakandan military bearing, opting to avoid making them all dress the same or stand with military precision. Wakandan soldiers danced and sang during the coronation of their king. Their salute was unique (always right-arm over the left-arm, the way Egyptian Pharaohs would be posed for burial). When it came time for T’Challa and his father, played by South African cinema legend John Kani, they decided on the day to speak in Xhosa, with Boseman learning lines translated by Kani on the day of filming. It was his idea for Killmonger to ask to be buried outside of Wakanda and in the oceans with his ancestors.
The Marvel Studios’ Origin Formula at Play in Black Panther
Image by Matt Kennedy via Marvel Studios
Solo debut movies in the MCU typically follow a formula. The hero starts in a place of comfort but wanting. They face a trial and come out a hero. They have to suffer a loss and battle a dark version of themselves. Where Black Panther really succeeds is in making Killmonger a sympathetic character and grounds his dark reflection of T’Challa in real trauma. There is nothing inaccurate about why Killmonger is angry, specifically with regard to the plight of historically oppressed peoples in the world. This is, in fact, something that also bothers T’Challa, but as the son of the king the struggle Killmonger talks about is only theoretical to him.
Where T’Challa abandoned his quest for vengeance, Killmonger became subsumed by his. He became a killer first for the state and then for money. When he finally achieved his goal, a takeover of Wakanda, he was in a position to arm every single city in the world with their own superhero. But that’s not what he did. He wanted to wage war on the world but burned all of the heart-shaped herb which could make people his equal. Like any despot, Killmonger feared equality. Yes, he wanted to make black and brown people loyal to him powerful, but not as powerful as he himself is.
In wresting back control of his kingdom, T’Challa did strike the blow that ended Killmonger. Yet, even at the end of their fight he wanted to forgive and save his life, not shed even more blood. Killmonger, or Erik Stevens A.K.A. N’Jadaka son of N’Jobu, ended up so lost in his anger and desire for vengeance that it was only after he was mortally wounded that he was able to recognize the beauty that is Wakanda.
T’Challa is Both a Superhero and a King
Image via Marvel Studios
Chadwick Boseman, fully aware of the responsibility of his role, had to embody both a superhero and the monarch of the most powerful nation on Earth. Had T’Challa ‘gone dark side’ like Killmonger, he could have easily taken over the world if he wanted. He didn’t need Infinity Stones, just Shuri’s technology and an army of super-soldiers. Yet, like Christopher Reeve’s Superman or Chris Evans’ Captain America, T’Challa is a pure, moral character. He doesn’t claim the crown because it is his birthright or his path to power. He takes on both the mantle of Black Panther and king out of a sense of responsibility and duty. Also, he sees how the Wakandan policy of ignoring the outside world is flawed both at a macro level and a personal one. He is repulsed when Zuri, played by Forest Whitaker, reveals his father murdered his brother and abandoned his nephew.
Still, the morality of the character did not stop Boseman from playing T’Challa as the complete badass he is. The opening scene, where he fights off a militia who kidnapped women and children, and the casino brawl in the second act are particularly awesome. T’Challa is tough, ruthless at times, but never without compassion. If Boseman lived, T’Challa might have gone on to become the kind of cinematic institution that Spider-Man, Batman, or Superman are today. Boseman was the sort of actor whose performance gives T’Challa the sort of foundation such a character needs yet allows other actors to come in a build on that role. Boseman knew that this role was bigger than himself. Like the character, rather than behave selfishly he worked even harder to make sure that T’Challa truly became immortal.
The Future of Black Panther Without Chadwick Boseman
Image via Marvel Studios
The night the news of his passing broke, enough fans lamented what would happen to Black Panther 2, it trended on Twitter. Yes, this is in bad taste, but it’s sinister. Boseman made T’Challa so beloved, fans couldn’t help but feel robbed of the chance to see him in as many movies as we’ve gotten Cap or Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man in. Whether Marvel decides to recast the role or not, the Black Panther has a future. In the comics, Shuri wore the mantle for a time and Letitia Wright could suit up for the sequel. Also, Nakia, played by Lupita Nyong’o is another candidate to become Black Panther. Eventually, the Marvel Universe will be rebooted and someone else will take on the role of T’Challa for a new generation.
Yet, just as we’ve not forgotten Christopher Reeve or Adam West, Chadwick Boseman will last forever. The choices he made, from T’Challa’s accent to his style to his morality, will inform the future portrayals one way or another. So, it’s a gift that we have this film (along with his other appearances in the MCU) which gives us a perfect T’Challa. These are movies that will passed down generationally, like Star Wars or James Bond or Batman or Superman. It’s natural, especially in this golden age of comic book films, to lament what we won’t get. Yet, as T’Challa would surely agree, we must remember to appreciate what we have.
Chadwick Boseman left an indelible mark on cinema. Yet, the gift (and, sometimes, curse) of playing a pop culture icon is that it lasts forever. Chadwick Boseman, like T’Challa, put his all into his work and did it not for aggrandizement but to leave a legacy on which others can build forever.
What do you think of Black Panther, and how will the legacy left behind by Chadwick Boseman stand up to the test of time? Share your thoughts and experiences in the comments below.
Featured Image via Marvel Studios
Joshua M. Patton is a father, veteran, and writer living in Pittsburgh, PA. The first books he read on his own were comics, and he's loved the medium ever since. He is the greatest star-pilot in the galaxy, a cunning warrior, and a good friend. His book "What I Learned: Stories, Essays, and More" is available in print from Amazon and from all electronic booksellers.