Nerd Factor: The New Black Panther

Dr Mike ~ UL Communication Studies Professor

Marvel Studios’ decision not to recast another actor into the role of T’Challa in Black Panther: Wakanda Forever was the right one. Chadwick Boseman left an indelible mark on the character and the franchise. Boseman would be difficult for anyone to follow in the role and any attempt to do so would seem like an insult to our memories of Boseman. 

Commercial pressures mean that popular culture must move on though. While we speculate about who the new Black Panther, or Black Panthers, will be, this decision highlights the difference between the way time moves in the Marvel Universe and the Marvel Cinematic Universe. 

In comic books, time has always been a strange thing. Take, for example, Peter Parker, the Amazing Spider-Man. When Peter first appeared, he was fifteen. This year marked the 60th anniversary of his debut. If comic book time matched real time, Spidey would be 75. He would be well passed retirement age, but knowing him he would probably still be in constant trouble. 

Yet, comic book Spider-Man has aged. When I was born, Peter Parker was already an undergraduate. When I graduated college, Peter was in graduate school. I passed him, getting my graduate degrees before he did. That’s not bragging. I had a lot less supervillains to fight. But now, I’m in my mid-fifties and Peter is in his late twenties. In roughly a half-century, Peter has aged about thirteen years. 

The Marvel Cinematic Universe works differently. While time is not an exact match (and the so-called “Blip” really turned this upside down), the MCU has progressed at a more realistic pace. This is because live-action production means real humans are in the parts and well, even celebrities age. Sure, CGI technology can de-age a character, like Samuel L. Jackson’s performance as a younger Nick Fury in the 1990s era Captain Marvel. That option is crazy expensive though.

Eventually, the actors in these roles will move on. As a result, the MCU eventually faces a choice: recast or replace. 

There is a third option—retirement. Realistically though, Marvel Studios’ corporate overlord Disney is never going to walk away from profitable intellectual property.

The MCU has been willing to recast. Mark Ruffalo took over as Bruce Banner/the Hulk from Edward Norton. Don Cheadle was the second James Rhodes, becoming War Machine instead of Terence Howard. Recasting is controversial. Ruffalo and Cheadle were largely well-received, but there have been complaints (and perhaps bitterness/confusion from Norton and Howard). 

Marvel Studio’s instincts have been to replace rather than recast. In fact, slowly but surely, the MCU setup possible replacements for most of its main characters. Former Falcon Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) has become the new Captain America. Yelena Belova (Florence Pugh) is the new Black Widow. And while I don’t know if he will, but James Rhodes could easily become the new Iron Man, as he did briefly in the comics. In fact, there’s someone ready to go to cover all of the original movie Avengers if needed now that we have She-Hulk (Tatiana Maslany as Jennifer Walters), a new Thor (Natalie Portman as Jane Foster) and another Hawkeye (Hailee Steinfeld as Kate Bishop). 

The choice in Wakanda Forever will permanently mark time in the MCU. There will be the era before T’Challa and after T’Challa. In some ways this might flow smoothly because there is a regal aspect to the Black Panther role. Royal succession suggests that Shuri (Letitia Wright) is the logical candidate to be the new Black Panther. However, the fantastic thing about the MCU’s Wakanda is that it has given us a number of other possible characters to fill the role—Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), Okoye (Danai Gurira), M’Baku (Winston Duke) and even Ramonda (Angela Bassett). My hope is that it will be all of them. Whatever happens, we will have a fantastic new Black Panther. 

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