Arts

The ‘Black Panther’ Sequel That Never Was

The “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” screenwriters Ryan Coogler and Joe Robert Cole are just coming up for air. A month after release, the much anticipated follow-up to the original “Black Panther” (2018) is well situated, still screening at more than 3,000 theaters heading into the holiday weekend. The film has received mostly positive reviews from critics and holds the year’s second-highest performance at the box office, after “Top Gun: Maverick.” To date, it has grossed more than $420 million domestically and nearly $800 million overall.

Things could have gone much differently.

“This film was difficult in ways that only the people who made it would know,” Coogler said in a recent interview. “There are things we put in there that felt revolutionary, that challenged the definition of having ‘a good time’ in a movie like this.”

The death of Chadwick Boseman, who played the title role in the original film — a noble but untested leader of the fictional African promised land Wakanda — forced a radical reimagining of the franchise. Coogler and Cole had recently sent Boseman a completed first draft of the script when the actor succumbed to a secret bout with colon cancer.

Their eventual rewrite opened with the death of Boseman’s character, T’Challa, turning the $250 million superhero film that followed into what can be fairly described as an extended meditation on grief and recovery.

In a recent joint conversation over video, the screenwriters discussed their original vision for a “Black Panther” sequel, how they addressed the loss of Boseman, and balancing the demands of their story with those of the broader Marvel Cinematic Universe.

These are edited — and spoiler-filled — excerpts from the conversation.

What was it like collaborating this time?

RYAN COOGLER Last time we went back and forth. Joe had already started when I came on. I think I tried to go for a draft, but I was taking too long and so he jumped in. Then we would get notes from the studio, and we would just kind of divide and conquer. On the second one, we were doing it over the pandemic, so we couldn’t meet up. But Final Draft [the screenwriting software] came out with this update where we could both work in the script at the same time. It was an amazing feature. Very productive, very fun.

JOE ROBERT COLE It allowed us to bridge that feeling of being in a room and just spitballing ideas.

COOGLER Then we took that hit, bro, when Chad passed. I couldn’t believe what was happening. I didn’t know how we were going to pull ourselves up and figure it out. Thank God for Joe and the collaborative process, man. It would’ve been impossible for me to write this thing on my own.

Joe Robert Cole was a writer on both the original “Black Panther” and the sequel. When it comes to pre-existing Marvel characters, “I’ve never had a conversation where I was asked to incorporate something that didn’t feel organic.”Credit…Caroline Brehman/EPA, via Shutterstock

In the initial draft of the script, before Chadwick’s death, how were you looking at the story? What were the challenges?

COOGLER It was, “What are we going to do about the Blip?” [In Marvel’s “Avengers: Infinity War,” T’Challa is one of billions of people who suddenly vanish, only to be brought back by the Avengers five years later.] That was the challenge. It was absolutely nothing like what we made. It was going to be a father-son story from the perspective of a father, because the first movie had been a father-son story from the perspective of the sons.

In the script, T’Challa was a dad who’d had this forced five-year absence from his son’s life. The first scene was an animated sequence. You hear Nakia [T’Challa’s love interest, played by Lupita Nyong’o] talking to Toussaint [the couple’s child, introduced in “Wakanda Forever” in a post-credits sequence]. She says, “Tell me what you know about your father.” You realize that he doesn’t know his dad was the Black Panther. He’s never met him, and Nakia is remarried to a Haitian dude. Then, we cut to reality and it’s the night that everybody comes back from the Blip. You see T’Challa meet the kid for the first time.

Then it cuts ahead three years and he’s essentially co-parenting. We had some crazy scenes in there for Chad, man. Our code name for the movie was “Summer Break,” and the movie was about a summer that the kid spends with his dad. For his eighth birthday, they do a ritual where they go out into the bush and have to live off the land. But something happens and T’Challa has to go save the world with his son on his hip. That was the movie.

Was Namor, the leader of the undersea nation Talokan in “Wakanda Forever,” still the villain?

COOGLER Yeah. But it was a combination. Val [the C.I.A. director, played by Julia Louis-Dreyfus] was much more active. It was basically a three-way conflict between Wakanda, the U.S. and Talokan. But it was all mostly from the child’s perspective.

In the new version, the opening scene is T’Challa’s death. Why did you decide to start there?

COLE Just practically, everyone was going to be waiting to see how we dealt with it, so doing it right up front made sense. In terms of the characters, we needed to introduce a different version of Shuri [T’Challa’s sister, played by Letitia Wright]. We’re showing the moment that she becomes a different person than the person we met. She’s the smartest person in the world, but she can’t save her brother. What does that do to you?

COOGLER We wanted to have an emotionally intelligent conversation. It’s about the transformative quality of grief and trauma. There’s this expectation with emotional trauma that you just need time. “Oh, give them a couple weeks off; they’ll come back to work and get back to it.” But that person is completely different in some ways. You just don’t see it because the change isn’t visible.

T’Challa’s death is attributed to an illness, but it seems sudden and inexplicable, which profoundly unsettles Shuri. Why did you make that choice?

COOGLER We wanted to keep it simple. At the end of the day, what mattered is that she had a self-expectation of being able to be solve it and she failed. And we didn’t want her to have anywhere to displace her anger. If somebody else would’ve taken T’Challa out, Shuri would’ve looked for that person. We wanted it to be a situation where the only place to go was internal.

Julia Louis-Dreyfus’s character has appeared in other Marvel properties and is being set up as a major antagonist in the studio’s future projects, including the “Thunderbolts” movie due in 2024. Is it challenging to incorporate characters or story lines from the broader Marvel Cinematic Universe?

COLE Ryan will have a different perspective as the director, but I’ve never had a conversation where I was asked to incorporate something that didn’t feel organic. The dynamic of the U.S. being an instigator and Western powers being an instigator, that always existed. It wasn’t, “Oh, we need to find a reason to make this character exist.” It was, “Oh, this is already in here and there’s this wonderful actress available.” It always starts from the story and the ideas.

COOGLER Yeah, nobody was shoehorned in or asked to be put into the movie or anything like that. Actually, in this version, [Louis-Dreyfus’s role] was pared back in order to make space for dealing with T’Challa’s death. And we had Val in there before she even appeared in any of the other movies, before “Black Widow” and [the series] “Falcon and the Winter Soldier.” People assume that we were told to put her in, but she was there from the beginning.

Ryan, what’s your appetite to tell more stories in the world of Wakanda?

COOGLER I feel blessed that I have the opportunity to work on these movies, bro. When I got asked to do the first one, it was like a moving train. I thank God every day that I was able to jump on it and meet these people, these actors, and to meet Chadwick during some of the last years of his life. I’ll do it as long as folks will have me. But I think it’s bigger than just me or Joe. Between the first and second movie, we made $2 billion at the box office, which is what matters the most to corporations. So I hope that it continues, man. I hope people are still making movies about Wakanda long after we’re gone.

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