The Black Panther sequel originally looked very different. For almost a year, writer-director Ryan Coogler was working on a version of the film that still centered Chadwick Boseman's character King T'Challa. The film was supposed to celebrate him, as well as his country of Wakanda.
Obviously, unfortunately, that film could not come to pass because Boseman passed away from cancer in August 2020. And when he did, Coogler suddenly had to reshape his vision for the franchise.
The result is Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, which addresses the passing of King T'Challa within the story and then follows his family and the warriors of his country as they deal with the new and unexpected threat of an underwater society known as Talokan, while also struggling with the fact that the Black Panther is absent from their world — at least until someone new is ready to pick up the mantle.
It's still a celebration of him and Wakanda, just in a more emotional way.
"We actually started the film right smack in the middle of [the pandemic], and I think everybody experienced a sense of loneliness during the years that followed that crisis, and it was just great to see some of these folks and give them a big, giant hug again," Coogler said during a press conference for the film. "We were all processing the things that people go through — this feeling of grief and loss — but it's also great when you don't have to do it alone. So, we were able to build that sense of community."
That community all mourns and honors T'Challa differently. As producer Nate Moore put it, feeling loss is not just about grief, it is also "sometimes joy, sometimes humor." And each character has a different point of view of the loss and is at a different place in their acceptance of it when the film returns to them.
Nakia, for example, Lupita N'yongo says, is "a little further along, in terms of her processing" than some other characters. "It's not like she has it all figured out," she explains, but, "in the first film, Ryan described her as T'Challa's oasis. And that really, really resonated with me, and so, when I was reading this script and thinking about where she is, I realized that what she was to T'Challa, she now has the opportunity to offer Shuri.
"When we're talking about exploration of grief, it's really grounding to have someone who is, I want to say, befriending of the change for the people in the story, but also for an audience, and the fact that she was to T'Challa's love, in a way, I guess it allows the audience to know it's OK," she continues. "Playing her was very therapeutic for me because I had to look beyond my frustration beyond losing Chadwick and learn from her, learn from that wisdom that she seems to possess."
Speaking of Princess Shuri, the loss of her brother hits her extremely hard, not only because of their sibling bond, but also because of the scientific skills and abilities she has that she feels should have let her help him.
"Shuri, every day she was alive, she had her brother and when she lost him, what we discovered while we were working on the script and eventually bringing it to life with it with actors, was that she really lost our sense of self," Coogler said. "She identified herself as this guy's little sister and as his protector and as the person who looks out for him, and so, when she loses that it makes her very unmoored."
In the first film, Letitia Wright reflected, Shuti is "a ray of sunshine. She's so closed and protected in in royalty and love, and proud of her big brother taking the step, following on his father's legacy, and she just wants to create. I love Shuri in the first one because there was no limit to her, as well."
But now, her heart is broken.
"We were able to bring something that felt real, that felt truthful, and I was able to really give my heart to it and give Shuri a full arc, and hopefully people can really resonate with that and be phantom healing alongside it," Wright continued.
But, Moore added, the Wakandans are not the only ones feeling a loss. Those who live in Talokan feel "the loss of their homeland." They didn't start out as an underwater people, after all, and the film explains how and why they came to live and rule there.
"When Ryan and the team did decide to provide Namor with this background, it was a fantastic move. I think now is the perfect moment to speak about it. In Latin America, especially Mexico, we deny our Indigenous roots; it's just like a token sometimes," Tenoch Huerta said. "It's not about genes for us because almost everybody in Mexico has Indigenous or African roots, it's about culture, and culturally, we are apart from Indigenous roots. So, embrace those roots and honor these sources. There's two main sources in Latin America which is African and Indigenous roots, and they are really important. And I hope this helps the people to embrace who they are — who we are. ... They taught us to be ashamed of who we are, but it's time to cut it off and say, 'Yeah, this is who I am, and there's nothing wrong with me.'"
Although the new antagonist in the film is a new male character, the majority of the characters who have central focus are female. There was no agenda behind this, Moore said, it "was just the right story to tell."
"These were the characters who were most affected by T'Challa's passing," he explained. "It's not about pushing women forward or holding men back. It's about telling the story that is organic."
Coogler added: "When you lose somebody, there's a blast radius: It's like a bomb that goes off and who was the closest to it? and that's what we explored. The main characters, their identities were kind of wrapped up in this man, that's the truth of it. ... And the tricky thing about that is, death comes for everybody."
Black Panther: Wakanda Forever opens in theaters Nov. 11 and the review embargo lifts just days before that, on Nov. 8. But you can already get an idea of what critics think from the social media reactions they posted after early screenings; click here for those.