Editor’s Note: The following contains spoilers about “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever.”
“Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” deftly completes the difficult task of continuing the franchise without its star, Chadwick Boseman, sensitively acknowledging his death by killing off the character of King T’Challa.
In the process, the Marvel blockbuster also makes a case for recasting when an actor dies or opts to move on, a once-standard practice that has increasingly been sidestepped and avoided by filling roles with digital wizardry or awkwardly rewriting storylines.
If the desire is to soften the blow for audiences, to spare them the mental leap required to accept a new performer in place of beloved or familiar one, the shift has done them a disservice. Indeed, there’s something almost insulting about treating fans as if they can’t handle the make-believe aspects of their favorite stories and adapt to embrace (or at least accept) new faces who are, after all, acting.
Marvel Studios chief Kevin Feige addressed the dilemma, saying it was “too soon” to replace Boseman. Writing around his absence isn’t the first time that a fantasy story has been changed to accommodate a tragic loss. In the case of the most recent “Star Wars” trilogy, the producers cobbled together Princess Leia’s part using a mix of unused footage and digital trickery, seeking to avoid replacing Carrie Fisher given her 40-year affiliation with the role.
Noting that filmmakers faced only bad options, director JJ Abrams described the process involving Leia as “figuring out how to create the puzzle based on the pieces we had” when the final sequel, “The Rise of Skywalker,” hit theaters in 2019.
Since then, Mark Hamill was magically de-aged for a cameo in “The Mandalorian,” and other lesser “Star Wars” players, like Grand Moff Tarkin (played by Peter Cushing, who died in 1994), have been similarly revived for different projects. Harold Ramis, meanwhile, was posthumously incorporated into “Ghostbusters: Afterlife,” although somewhat more organically, as a ghost.
As common as the practice has become, it’s worth noting that it wasn’t always this way. When Richard Harris died after “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets,” Michael Gambon seamlessly took up Dumbledore’s wand. And of course, characters like James Bond and Doctor Who regularly give way to new incarnations, with varying degrees of success, without derailing those decades-old franchises.
To be fair, “Wakanda Forever” does as well and probably better than should have been expected under such trying circumstances. Still, there’s no denying that T’Challa’s death, and its reminder of Boseman’s, introduces a somber chord into this superhero fantasy, and that nobody would have chosen to proceed without him had the real world not intervened.
Arguably, the puzzle analogy regarding Leia deprived the character of the enhanced part she should have occupied in “The Rise of Skywalker,” based on Harrison Ford and Hamill’s contributions to “The Force Awakens” and “The Last Jedi,” respectively.
Despite improvements in digital technology, there’s also often a soullessness to these computer-generated replicants relative to what a flesh-and-blood performer can bring to the role.
Building elements of the movie around existing material was clearly limiting, which points to what should be the bottom-line consideration: If the creators are forced to go in markedly different storytelling and plot directions than they otherwise would have, then recasting is the most logical. alternative.
That’s not to say any resolution is going to be perfect when faced with what Abrams called “the impossible question.” But the benefits of establishing a new actor in a pivotal role outweigh whatever discomfort stems from introducing a new T’Challa, just like the new Bonds and Whos and Dumbledores that came before, and does nothing to undermine honoring memories of them.
The question might well be impossible, but the answer is right there, and rooted in screen history. It just requires trusting the audience enough to choose it.