Spoilers for Wakanda Forever
Last week, Ryan Coogler, Angela Bassett, and Letitia Wright covered the digital edition of Variety, but I put off writing about it until more people got to see Black Panther: Wakanda Forever over the weekend.
The Variety profile focuses heavily on the loss of Chadwick Boseman, and how that necessitated changing the script for Wakanda Forever, and it’s impossible to talk about Boseman, grief, and Wakanda Forever without digging into the film itself. Boseman’s loss, and by extension T’Challa’s, too, is centered so heavily in the film, it directly ties into major plot elements of the story. For instance, Marvel chief Kevin Feige says of Letitia Wright and her character, Shuri, “…the entire weight of the movie and of the kingdom of Wakanda was on her shoulders in the next movie in a way that obviously no one expected.”
You can definitely tell Shuri was not intended to be the protagonist or be the new Black Panther by how quickly the film rushes through those developments to arrive at the third-act showdown with Namor. It’s not that Wright isn’t a good actor, it’s not that she can’t anchor a film, she absolutely can (see also: Small Axe: Mangrove). It’s just that Shuri was originally meant to be comic relief for the more serious T’Challa, which Feige unintentionally acknowledges, saying Wright was hired in part because she “provided a levity to the film”. It’s one thing to ask us to buy into Shuri’s terrible, furious grief—we can do that. Many of us feel echoes of that from the loss of Boseman, an artist who made a huge impact in what turned out to be such a tragically brief time.
But Shuri as Black Panther? Did not buy it for one second. Not earned, not convincing. Shuri working round the clock to solve Wakanda’s problems via technology? Makes total sense. Shuri trying to mediate the conflict with Namor? Also believable. But Shuri becoming the Black Panther? When Nakia and Okoye, or even Ayo, were right there? Literally anyone else made more sense. I suppose Coogler & Co. want to hold Danai Gurira and Okoye in reserve as she is going to be the protagonist of the Wakanda-set spinoff series on Disney+. But so what?! Make her Black Panther anyway. The third-act climax that actually makes sense is for Okoye to become the Black Panther and Shuri gets in her Blue Angel super-suit or whatever that was called. Without T’Challa, the entire world of Wakanda has to shift, but thrusting Shuri into the role of the Black Panther, with so little grounding for that decision, feels like taking an easy out for a difficult problem. (Yes, I know Shuri has done it in the comics, but it just was not earned in this film.)
Anyway, it is palpable how difficult this was for everyone to do without Boseman. Coogler is clearly still reeling, and Wright talking about calling Boseman’s phone and leaving messages after finding out he passed is awful. I’ve lost two friends suddenly, and it felt like a horrible prank each time. I just wanted everyone to stop saying these terrible things, and reveal it was all a bad joke. Death can really feel like someone pulled the rug out from under you, and you’ve landed in a strange new world where nothing makes sense. It’s clear that, two years later, those who love Chadwick Boseman are still struggling to find their way to a reality that makes some kind of sense without him.
As for the other stuff in the profile, I like what Coogler and Bassett have to say about learning to swim and considering if Bassett could get her head wet on set. Black people and swimming in America is a loaded topic, and I like that it has been discussed as part of this film’s reality. They also talk about Wright’s on set injury, which was written off as “minor injuries” at the time, but really involved a fractured shoulder and concussion. I bring this up to emphasize a point. Well, two points. One, keep in mind when actors are taken off set, it’s always serious. There are medics on set, if it’s minor, they can handle it. If an actor is hospitalized, it is never “minor”.
And two, it goes with all the ducking and weaving around Letitia Wright’s vaccination status. Many of us were disappointed when Wright, the face of super-scientist Shuri, was revealed to be anti-vaxx, or at least anti-vaxx adjacent. In this profile, producer Nate Moore makes clear no one ever asked Wright about her vaccination status, and it wasn’t talked about on set. He says of the reports Wright was anti-vaxx, “As someone who literally is on set next to the monitor all the time, I feel like I would have heard it.”
My guy, she was tweeting about it. But this is why I bring up the “minor injuries” statement from 2021 when Wright was injured on set. The people of Marvel are masters of prevarication. No one in the industry is better at playing down problems or spinning news to their favor. A lot of it comes from Kevin Feige himself, who is a natural diplomat and not prone to tantrums or bombast. He is calm and measured and not hasty with his words. Nate Moore, one of his proteges, has clearly developed these same traits. To succeed with Feige is to become a diplomat, too. They are hardly going to give any more oxygen than strictly necessary to the furor around Wright and her anti-vaxx status. They have to discuss it, because it became such a cultural flashpoint during the height of the pandemic (which isn’t over! Get vaxxed!). But they are not going to say anything controversial themselves, or in any way make the situation worse. It’s all “minor injuries” until it’s safe to declare otherwise.
To me, it seems clear Wright still has some suspicious opinions about vaccines. She and her publicists gave the Variety reporters the run-around on the topic, ultimately providing no answers despite saying Wright would talk about it, if only via email. In the end, Wright’s reps directed the reporters to her 2021 Instagram rebuttal to the reports about her vaccination beliefs.
I truly hope now that Wakanda Forever is out in the world, and a bona fide hit, Ryan Coogler et al can “break” over Boseman’s death. It’s not like the movies, like Coogler says. There is no retreating and doing all your healing off screen and only returning once you’re ready. In real life, grief comes in waves, and it never really leaves you. It just shifts in size and shape until it becomes part of you, something you can carry. And if Ryan Coogler never returns to Wakanda, let alone the wider MCU, that’s fine. He did not mean to walk this path alone, and now he must do so while carrying the weight of his grief. Whatever comes next, I just hope he finds some peace.