We spoke with the Black Panther: Wakanda Forever director about how he navigated the loss of friend and mentor Chadwick Boseman, honoring the late actor’s legacy in the highly-anticipated sequel, and which comic runs he read in preparation.
For a man at the helm of his second potential blockbuster, Ryan Coogler is composed as can be. It’s not exactly uncharted territory for the 36-year-old filmmaker. Coogler is already the co-mastermind of Black Panther, a film he directed and co-wrote with Joe Robert Cole that pulled in north of $1 billion at the box office, earned Marvel its first Best Picture nod at The Oscars in 2019, and formally introduced a whole (previously hidden) kingdom in the MCU, along with an unforgettable ensemble of characters.
Now, on the heels of releasing the film’s long-awaited sequel Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, Coogler and Co. are suddenly faced with doing it all over again. Only this time around, the stakes are higher and the sentiments impossibly somber. Two years into the development of a script for a Black Panther follow-up, Coogler lost friend, colleague, mentor, and frankly, the very foundation of this franchise, Chadwick Boseman, who passed away in August 2020. And while fans will have to wait and see what form the story takes, Coogler spoke with us about the initial play for T’Challa’s return, how he was forced to reshape his vision in the wake of Boseman’s tragic passing, and which comic book runs informed the version of the film we can expect to see, when Wakanda Forever hits theaters nationwide next Friday, November 11.
Initially, Cooler envisioned the sequel being centered around a T’Challa navigating a “post-blip” Wakanda, which has yet to be explored in any capacity in the MCU.
“I thought it would be interesting to see a character study on him,” Coogler said of his scrapped schematic for the original Black Panther sequel in a call from a Los Angeles outpost. “When we were getting ready to make that movie, it was shortly after Endgame had been released. And it was a movie about a guy who disappeared for five years and came back and found a lot of things different, like new relationships and new responsibilities for himself. And he was trying to navigate that while running an extremely powerful country that was in a new place.”
Coogler seemed to imply loss, grief, trauma — and how we face them — were always going to be a part of the equation in Wakanda’s next chapter. Where the new version of the film has been forced to openly embrace the collapse of its spiritual center, the original script would have still addressed those injuries, but in the passing of time and how T’Challa returns to a home that had likely grown unfamiliar during his leave.
Instead of zooming in on the prodigal son’s reemergence, the director was forced to pan out on the painful fact of his absence, mirroring the sort of collective mourning he and the crew had to undergo just to make the film.
“It wasn’t meant to be,” Coogler said. “We weren’t destined to make that film. I had to swallow my pride there with that one because I had never been in that situation before as a professional. I’ve been blessed that whenever I wrote a script, I went and shot it. And in this case, there was nobody I could call or plead to say, ‘Hey, yo, we got to make this movie.’ Couldn’t do it. And that was something we had to reckon with, and that was nothing compared to reckoning with losing him as a friend and as a mentor.”
Though Wakanda Forever will test the emotional thresholds of its audience, Coogler is convinced it will also bring fans closer to the man Boseman was.
“Eventually, [we] started thinking about him and how he made the decision to live his life. He taught us lessons by not telling us what was going on,” Coogler said on the actor’s choice to leave his peers in the dark during a quiet battle with colon cancer. “Following my instincts, it was like, ‘All right, maybe we can keep going in this way.’ So that’s what we did.”
The film’s new direction takes cues from the panels of classic — and somewhat obscure — Marvel Comics events. But in keeping with the MCU’s not-so-silent policy on published source material, Coogler did more synthesizing than verbatim adaptation. After all, Wakanda Forever is as much a new entry for the technologically advanced African nation, as it is the first pages to introduce yet another secret kingdom stashed in the MCU. Enter Namor, a god-like leader of the submerged nation of Talocan, which is roughly based on the character’s comic book origins where he instead serves as the king of Atlantis. The change here may seem like an obvious attempt at squashing inevitable comparisons to another comic book publisher’s very popular underwater hero. But it also offers the opportunity to incorporate aspects of Aztec legend into a dynamic new anti-hero.
“I had read all that I could get my hands on in preparation for the first Panther,” the director recalled. “For this one I did the same thing. Read a lot of Namor’s runs. He has a lot of interactions with Wakanda peppered throughout them. There’s real intense ones in DOOMWAR, Avengers Vs. X-Men, and also in Secret Wars when you’re dealing with all the incursion stuff.” Coogler also shouted out Jonathan Hickman’s “great work” in building expansive epics around Namor and T’Challa’s perpetually tense relationship.
Though he can’t divulge too much about what form his interpretation of the runs will take in the new film, Coogler’s long game on the screen could eventually rival that of Hickman’s on the page. He won’t yet commit to a third film but there are already two spinoff series in development for Disney+, and whoever ends up taking the mantle will almost absolutely be an integral figure in the MCU for years to come. For now, however, Coogler’s focused on what’s right in front of him: the unveiling of a sequel that’s drawn historic anticipation, even if it wasn’t the one he intended to make.