Forever changed: The grief and joy of Black Panther: Wakanda Forever
Even on the set of the first Black Panther, Ryan Coogler was always looking to the future. At the time, the director didn’t know how his sprawling superhero story — an ambitious, visually stunning epic and the first Marvel Studios film with a predominantly Black cast — would be received. He certainly didn’t know Black Panther would hit audiences like a tidal wave, changing the culture as both a box-office juggernaut and eventual Best Picture nominee. His primary goal was just to finish the film in front of him, especially as Black Panther’s 2018 release date crept closer and closer.
But while he was on set or in the editing bay, Coogler found himself daydreaming about what the future of Wakanda might hold — what unexplored corners he might investigate, what new characters he might someday introduce. Soon, it looked like he would get his chance: Almost immediately after Black Panther hit theaters, Marvel gave the sequel an official green light, and Coogler got to work bringing those daydreams to life.
Then, the unthinkable happened. Chadwick Boseman, the luminous hero who broke barriers as the leader of Wakanda, died in August 2020 after a private battle with colon cancer. He was only 43. Coogler suddenly found himself grieving not only the loss of his star but a close friend, a collaborator who had helped shape Black Panther since the beginning. The future they’d spent years imagining had dimmed, and Coogler wasn’t sure whether he even wanted to return to Wakanda — or ever return to filmmaking.
“I was at a point when I was like, ‘I’m walking away from this business,'” Coogler, 36, admits. ‘I didn’t know if I could make another movie period, [let alone] another Black Panther movie, because it hurt a lot. I was like, ‘Man, how could I open myself up to feeling like this again?'”
In the days and weeks following Boseman’s death, Coogler started replaying memories in his head. He would rewatch old footage of himself with Boseman, or he’d listen to interviews where his friend would speak about what the character of T’Challa and Wakanda meant to him. The actor had always been a fierce advocate for the film, and as Coogler listened to Boseman’s words, he found himself thinking about the future again. “I was poring over a lot of our conversations that we had, towards what I realized was the end of his life,” the director explains. “I decided that it made more sense to keep going.”
The result is Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, a bittersweet epic (out Nov. 11) that honors Boseman’s legacy while expanding the world he loved so much. Coogler returns as director and co-writer, reteaming with original Black Panther co-writer Joe Robert Cole, and the sequel picks up in the wake of King T’Challa’s death, as the fictional African nation mourns the loss of its beloved leader. Familiar faces like Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett), Shuri (Letitia Wright), Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), Okoye (Danai Gurira), and M’Baku (Winston Duke) are not only grieving their king but fighting to protect their home from new dangers.
“The movie is very much about how you move forward while dealing with a tragic loss,” explains producer Nate Moore. “All of the characters, both old and new, are dealing with how loss can affect your actions in ways that are emotional and surprising.”
Wakanda Forever is a story of grief, and Boseman’s death shaped both the plot and the filmmaking process. But it’s also a story of joy, introducing bold new heroes and celebrating the rich world of Wakanda. Every cast member says that the shoot was an emotional affair, but they also found it cathartic — and even fun.
“One of my favorite refrains of [Ryan’s] while we were filming was, ‘We’re making a big movie!'” Nyong’o, 39, remembers. “He said it to pump us up when the day was getting long and arduous. If you know Ryan, you know he is a very modest human being, so it would tickle us to hear him say that. We would echo it all around the set to get refocused and re-energized.”
If the first Black Panther was the story of T’Challa, then Wakanda Forever is the story of the nation he loved and fought to defend. The film picks up after the events of Avengers: Endgame, and the historically secretive country has revealed itself to the world, sharing its advanced technology while also attracting new threats. “This is a country that has taken a lot of hits,” Gurira, 44, says. “We know what happened in the Avengers movies and what it’s dealing with.”
The loss of T’Challa also means that a new hero will don the claws and carry on the Black Panther mantle. A new trailer, released today, teases the first look at the new Panther suit — which appears to be worn by a woman. (There are multiple contenders in the MCU, but in the comics, Shuri takes over the role after her brother is injured.) Marvel remains tight-lipped about the new Panther’s identity, but Coogler and Moore tease expanded roles for many returning characters. “There was a lot more responsibility placed on the shoulders of the ensemble,” Duke, 35, says. “One of the superpowers of the first film was the ensemble, and now, it’s resting on our shoulders to continue the story and help it move forward.”
Each character is grappling with change in a different way. Duke’s M’Baku is still leading the Jabari tribe, while taking a more prominent role in Wakandan affairs. Gurira says the ever-faithful Okoye remains fiercely loyal to her country and “would gladly give her life for it.” And the stoic Queen Ramonda is reckoning with unimaginable loss, first the death of her husband and now her son T’Challa.
“She is the queen of Wakanda, the most powerful, most technologically advanced nation in the world, but she is also a mother,” Bassett, 64, explains. “She’s balancing trying to keep threats to her nation at bay, lead her people, and mother her daughter, in the midst of the grief of losing her son and king. It’s a lot for her to handle.”
As for Ramonda’s daughter, Wright says Shuri has “buried herself in her technology” and is spending most of her time in her laboratory, locking herself away as she grieves her brother. Like many of her costars, Wright takes on an expanded role in the sequel, and she says she was particularly excited to explore new sides of her fan-favorite character.
“We haven’t seen that on a major scale, where there’s a young Black woman who’s a princess, and she’s also a scientist,” the 28-year-old actress says. “I have this feeling of pride when a young woman comes up to me and says, “Hey, you made me feel smart in school, and you made me feel like I can be in technology alongside a man, and I feel empowered.’ That has changed my life forever.”
Shuri’s journey was briefly derailed last year, when Wright was injured on set during an incident with a stunt rig. The actress suffered a critical shoulder fracture and concussion and was briefly hospitalized. Filming paused for a few weeks as she recovered — an additional setback for an already tricky shoot.
“It was an unfortunate situation that set me back a bit, but in that time I surrounded myself with family and friends,” Wright says. “Ryan, he was incredibly supportive. And it was a moment for me to gain courage that I never had before and I didn’t know I had. You know when you go through situations, you’re like, ‘I didn’t know I had this much strength in me until I went through it’? That was my experience. I got the healing that I needed, and I went back on set, and I was determined to not let that limit me. I felt like, ‘Oh my goodness, what if I can’t do the things that I’m used to doing?’ But by God’s grace, I made it through, and I came back stronger.”
The title may be Wakanda Forever, but Wakanda isn’t the only powerful nation to play a major role. The film introduces the underwater kingdom of Talocan, led by the powerful Namor. Coogler has long been fascinated by the mercurial Namor, and in the comics, the Sub-Mariner is often a major adversary for the Black Panther. “He’s always been really cool and charismatic, but also arrogant,” Coogler says. “He’s kind of an asshole, kind of romantic, and just incredibly powerful.” The character first debuted back in 1939, and he’s since become one of Marvel Comics’ most iconic figures. Rights issues prevented Marvel and Coogler from introducing him in the first film, but here, Namor finally makes his live-action debut, complete with his signature pointed ears and wings on his ankles.
Mexican actor Tenoch Huerta plays the iconic antihero, who clashes with Wakanda as he fights to protect his aquatic homeland. “Maybe the most important twist in the character is that he’s not a selfish person,” Huerta says. “He’s taking care of a community. He’s not an individualist. He’s part of a tribe.” The 41-year-old actor, known for roles in projects like The Forever Purge and Narcos: Mexico, jumped at the chance to play such a legendary Marvel figure. There was only one problem: Despite being cast to play the leader of an underwater kingdom, Huerta didn’t know how to swim. When Coogler offered him the role and asked about his swimming skills, Huerta simply replied, “I’ve never drowned before.”
“I never lie!” the actor says now with a laugh. “I never drowned before, so that’s not a lie.” (To prepare for the role, he took swimming lessons. In fact, all of the castmates brushed up on their swimming skills and practiced breath training — regardless of whether their characters hailed from Talocan or Wakanda.)
In the comics, Namor rules the kingdom of Atlantis, a Grecian-inspired underwater paradise. But Coogler and Marvel wanted to reimagine the realm for the screen, instead introducing Talocan as a lavish Mesoamerican civilization, hidden under the sea. Specifically, Talocan draws inspiration from Mayan culture, and the filmmakers and production team worked closely with Mayan historians and experts. Like their enemies in Wakanda, Talocan itself has a rich history and has remained hidden from the rest of the globe. “They often find themselves in conflict because they’re not dissimilar,” Moore says of the two civilizations. “They are these nations that would prefer to be hidden and isolated, with monarchs who are incredibly powerful and have strong points of view about how the world should be.”
Production designer Hannah Beachler and costume designer Ruth E. Carter are both back after winning groundbreaking Oscars for their work on the first Black Panther. Not only did they have to craft new corners of Wakanda, but they also had to build Talocan from the ground up. “We did a deep dive, because we wanted to get it right,” Beachler says. “I think this is going to be the freshest Atlantis that you’ll ever see. Certainly with Ryan Coogler at the helm, it’s going to be special.” Beachler is cryptic about exact details — this is a Marvel movie, after all — but she does tease that Wakanda Forever takes visual inspiration from Steven Spielberg’s Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, as well as classic Jack Kirby comic imagery.
For Carter, she particularly embraced jade and aquatic elements while outfitting the residents of Talocan, referencing undersea creatures like lionfish and sharks as she crafted elaborate feather headdresses. The amount of underwater filming also meant that her team had to test certain costumes by submerging them in a pool. “You would put a costume in the water, and it would automatically look like ballet,” Carter says. “It looked like those fish we love to watch on the National Geographic channel.”
The Talocan cast also includes Mexican actress Mabel Cadena as Namora and Venezuelan actor Alex Livinalli as Attuma, and Huerta says he hopes Wakanda Forever will be a landmark moment for Latin American representation, much as the first Black Panther was for Black representation. He particularly praises Marvel and Coogler for their care and attention to detail, and how they consulted with experts in Mayan culture and design.
“You can research whatever culture you want, but if you have people from that culture and they have that knowledge and experience — not just from books, but from being alive — the approach is totally different,” Huerta says. “That’s what inclusion means. It’s not just putting some brown-skinned people in front of the camera or giving them an important role. It’s how you’re creating the movie. Who is directing? Who is writing? What is the voice of the production of the movie?”
The Wakandans may be facing off against a new antagonist, but fortunately, they also have a number of new allies. I May Destroy You creator and star Michaela Coel joins the cast as Wakandan warrior Aneka, while Dominique Thorne makes her debut as inventor Riri Williams — better known as Ironheart. Riri only popped up in Marvel comics in 2016, but has since become a fan favorite, a brilliant student who follows in the armored footsteps of Tony Stark. And although her inspiration may be a wealthy billionaire playboy, the teenage Riri is decidedly more down to earth.
“I love the fact that she is just fully herself,” Thorne, 25, says. “She’s definitely not the typical or traditional superhero. She’s very much Riri Williams, the 19-year-old student first, and then there’s this whole Ironheart business that she has to figure out.”
Thorne will headline her own upcoming Disney+ series Ironheart in 2023, but first, she’s heading to Wakanda. Just as the original Black Panther accommodated the diversity of the Black experience, contrasting the African T’Challa with the American Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), Wakanda Forever will explore similar territory with Shuri and the Chicago-born Riri. Wright says she’s particularly excited for young Black girls to fall in love with another role model like Riri, just as they fell in love with Shuri. “It’s like that’s being done again in a fresh, beautiful way,” Wright says. “I think it’s just beautiful to see that there’s more room being made for those characters to shine.”
Thorne actually auditioned for the original Black Panther back when she was a sophomore in college. She didn’t get the role, but later starred in Judas and the Black Messiah, a film that Coogler produced. Some time further on, she received a call from Marvel producer Moore, who asked her if she was familiar with Riri Williams. When Thorne said yes, she assumed Moore would ask her to audition or send in a self-tape. Instead, he offered her the role right then and there.
Thorne jokes that she technically did audition for Wakanda Forever, just a few years too early. “They said, ‘We’d love to work with you in the future, but you just don’t have enough experience right now,'” the actress remembers. “At the time, I was like, ‘Yeah, yeah, sure, okay. That’s what you tell everybody, isn’t it?’ But I guess they meant what they said.”
One of the tricky things about making a culture-altering, universally beloved film is that the bar is permanently raised for the inevitable sequel. The first Black Panther turned several cast members into household names overnight, and many admit that they feel the “pressure” of getting Wakanda Forever right. Not only was Black Panther a record-setting superhero blockbuster, but it also sparked global discussions about Black representation on screen.
In 2019, the film became the first comic book movie to land a Best Picture nod, and at the time, EW contributor Marc Bernardin wrote that it felt like a “cinematic revolution,” a spellbinding Marvel adventure that also “carried with it the hopes and dreams of a demographic who’ve never seen themselves on screen like this, rendered with all the care and resources usually summoned for movies starring paler protagonists.”
Duke remembers how opening weekend, he almost had to turn his phone off because it wouldn’t stop buzzing with congratulatory texts, photos of sold-out showings, and viral videos of young children staring wondrously at a superhero poster filled with Black faces. When EW spoke to Gurira in September, she was in Ghana, and she noted that wherever she goes on the African continent — to Nigeria, Zimbabwe, South Africa, Zambia — she still gets near-daily comments about how Black Panther changed someone’s life. “There’s still so much active love and appreciation for this character, for this work, for this story,” the Walking Dead star marvels. “I was already part of a franchise before, but the way this one is grounded in Africa and the expression of Africans really was unprecedented.”
Any sequel would need to live up to that weighty legacy — as well as the legacy of the late Boseman. The actor’s absence was keenly felt on set, to the point where it could be difficult to return to familiar filming locations. “The tribal council room, that was hard to step back into because the last time we’d seen that throne, it was with Chadwick,” Gurira says. But in those emotional moments, there was a support system: “When one person was having a hard day, everyone else would galvanize around them,” says Duke. “We would take turns doing that.”
The cast and crew say that Boseman’s legacy informed every element of Wakanda Forever, from the story and the performances down to the intricacies of the production. “I always carried him in every scene,” Wright says. “I always would ask, ‘Bro, what do you think?’ and just try to keep a spiritual connection. He meant everything to me, and he’s the reason why I’m here. He picked me to be his sister, so I couldn’t have done this journey without him.”
If there’s one thing Wakanda has learned, it’s that the right leader can help you carry through even the most insurmountable situations. For the Wakanda Forever cast, that leader was Coogler, the Creed and Fruitvale Station filmmaker who made their set a collaborative place, inviting actors and crew to share their opinions.
“I dreaded the start of this shoot because I could not imagine how we would proceed without Chadwick,” Nyong’o admits. “It was unfathomable to me. But Ryan managed to honor his life and his role in both the film and our lives with his moving, truthful, and clear vision.” Moore puts it even more simply: “I think our crew would follow him off a cliff, to be quite honest.”
Coogler and Marvel have said many times that they never considered recasting T’Challa with another actor. Instead, Coogler’s hope is that Wakanda Forever will carry on Boseman’s legacy by expanding it with an entirely new story.
“It’s my job as a filmmaker to do things that I have personal integrity with,” Coogler says. “If I don’t believe in what I’m doing, I’m going to have a hard time getting other people to do their best work. For them to do their best work, they have to believe in it. At the end of the day, the choices we make have to feel truthful to me. When filmmakers make things that don’t feel truthful to them, you can feel it. And I will argue that those projects don’t have a shot at working.”
When EW spoke to Coogler in late September, he was in Los Angeles, still working to put the finishing touches on Wakanda Forever before its November release. As he spoke about the movie’s themes of loss and maturation, he invoked the ocean, an apt metaphor for a film that spends so much time in the water.
“There’s that idea of grief and intense emotion feeling like it comes in waves,” Coogler says. “Sometimes a wave can take you away where you lose control of it. You think you’re in control, but the water can always remind you that you’re not.”
And sometimes, that wave can carry you exactly where you need to go.
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