This has been brewing for a while. I can’t promise that this will be a sort of “definitive” word on the topic of recasting T’Challa. I’m not an authority; I’m just a human being with a lot of emotions and some contradictory thoughts who happens to have the ability to write an op-ed. It’s not anything that should really be that serious, but at the end of the day, I’m a fan, and while I don’t normally like writing about fandom, I feel it’s time. So, here are my thoughts on the #RecastTChalla social media movement.
T’Challa, of course, is a Marvel superhero, otherwise known as the Black Panther. Actor Chadwick Boseman portrayed Black Panther in the titular 2018 film, before tragically passing in August of 2020. In December of 2020, during a Disney Investor Day, Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige confirmed they would not be recasting the character, even as the studio moved forward with ‘Black Panther II’ (now titled, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever). In April of 2021, film critic Emmanuel Noisette started a petition to have Marvel recast the character of T’Challa, which as of this writing has amassed just over 43,000 signatures. I won’t recount the points of the petition, but I would encourage you to read it before continuing.
When I first read the petition earlier this year, I felt a lot of my own thoughts being echoed. I’ve been a Black Panther fan since I first found the character at age 14. That’s about 20 years now, give or take a month or two. In fact, I can say quite confidently that Black Panther is my favorite fictional character. And when I say “Black Panther,” I mean T’Challa in the same way that when I say “Batman,” I mean Bruce Wayne. And when I say T’Challa in this specific context, I really mean the T’Challa of writer Christopher Priest and artist Sal Velluto. That guy — the super-genius king that can outsmart Iron Man and hold his own in fights with Iron Fist and Captain America? That guy is a pretty cool dude.
14 year-old me desperately wanted to be him. I loved that he was two steps ahead of his enemies and three steps ahead of his friends, but didn’t quite get what it meant for the man who chose to live that way. I wanted the statuesque beauties that served as T’Challa’s concomitants, all too eager to ignore the prison that they were in and who put them there. As I grew older and relied on the power fantasy less, I became more consciously aware of the story being told, the tragedy at the heart of it all. And I began to recognize the places where the story could have been better told. Still, I now find enjoyment in the failings, and the character remains my favorite in any medium.
All of this is to say that I love this character in particular, and so when Boseman passed, I was devastated. And when Kevin Feige, with the assuredness that has made him one of Hollywood’s most successful producers, said “We will not be recasting the character,” it hit me deeper than I anticipated. I thought I had emotionally prepared for that possible outcome. I couldn’t quite figure out my own feelings. Why did that hurt so much? After all, in the hours after Boseman’s passing a friend asked me what I thought Marvel should do, and I proposed that they pass the mantle on to Shuri, T’Challa’s sister, who has worn the mantle of Black Panther in the comics when T’Challa was severely injured. Hell, a year earlier, my cousin asked me what I wanted to see in the sequel and I told her that I was good. After all, Black Panther saw T’Challa face off against his three biggest rogues: Killmonger, Klaue, and M’Baku. What more could I ask for? And yet here I was, wanting. I found a sense of camaraderie in Noisette’s petition, and I appreciated the way Noisette pointed out that this wasn’t about preventing Shuri from taking the mantle, so much as it was about continuing T’Challa’s story. But why was that important?
Created by Jack Kirby and Stan Lee in 1966 and debuting as a guest star in Fantastic Four #52, T’Challa is the first Black superhero in mainstream comics. That “mainstream” is important, as Black heroes had appeared prior in the Black-owned and created All-Negro Comics, which was a single issue anthology released in 1947, a venture that was led by journalist Orrin Cromwell Evans. In that book there is a story by Evans’ brother, George J. Evans Jr., called “Lion Man”, where a young college educated African-American scientist is sent by the United Nations to watch over a “Magic Mountain” containing the valuable resource uranium. Using a combination of science and “keen instinct,” Lion Man tracks down the evil Dr. Sangro and foils his plans with the help of a mischievous sidekick named Bubba. It’s a short story that was meant to continue, but unfortunately, All-Negro Comics #2 never made it to print.
Now, I don’t know if Stan Lee and Jack Kirby ever read All-Negro Comics, but the similarities between the “Lion Man” story and the two-issue debut of Black Panther in Fantastic Four are hard to ignore. That being said, both stories likely owe a bit to the creation of polymath-adventurer pulp hero Doc Savage in the 1930s, who also almost certainly helped in the creation of other Marvel Heroes like Hank Pym. As for Wakanda, I suspect that’s a bit more of Kirby’s creation — he had already created another secret advanced society with the Inhumans just a few issues prior in Fantastic Four #45 and would later create the New Gods for DC and the Eternals for Marvel. Secret advanced societies are a Jack Kirby staple. But within the very white world of Marvel, having a competent Black man serve as a hero was certainly not the norm.
Indeed, it still wasn’t the norm when the Marvel Cinematic Universe began with 2008’s Iron Man. In that film, Terrence Howard stares at an unfinished Iron Man suit and says, “Next time, baby.” There would be no next time, as Howard was recast with Don Cheadle. Don’s version of Col. James Rhodes would suit up as War Machine in 2010’s Iron Man 2, but would be absent in 2012’s Avengers, in a decision so frustrating, I’m shaking my head as I write this down in 2021.
Iron Man 2 ends with Nick Fury and Tony Stark meeting about the Avengers Initiative, and a humorous exchange as Tony learns that Nick Fury wants Iron Man for the team, but not Tony Stark. This film just so happens to feature a military man with an Iron Man suit of his own and a much more stable personality than Tony’s, and yet when we get to the big culmination of build-up, not only does this character not appear, Tony doesn’t even think to call him when Loki brings an alien army to attack New York.
Marvel Studios’ second Black hero, Sam Wilson aka Falcon (played by Anthony Mackie) is a competent enough hero in Captain America: The Winter Soldier to get his wings clipped by the titular antagonist and have a Rocky III cutaway with the film’s third-ranked antagonist(?) Needless to say, when Chadwick Boseman’s T’Challa appeared in 2016’s Captain America: Civil War, he was a breath of fresh air. So was Alfre Woodard.
See, while I can talk about the pathetic representation of Black male heroes in the Marvel Cinematic Universe prior to Captain American: Civil War, I can’t talk about Black women prior to that point. Not Black women heroes, Black women period. Because Alfre Woodard is the first Black actress to have a speaking role as a Black human woman in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Okay, that’s not entirely true — there’s one woman who has a single line of dialogue as one of the civilians being interviewed on the news at the end of Avengers. But like, think about that. It took the franchise eight years and thirteen films to have a Black woman character that wasn’t part of a montage that you might miss.
And that brings us back to #RecastTChalla.
Battle of the Sexes, Gender Wars, and Crabs in a Barrel
Before I continue discussing representation, I need to address something. I’m biracial (Black and white). That means I cannot be an authoritative voice on Blackness, and certainly shouldn’t be your sole resource on Black representation. If I’m your only Black voice/resource/friend, you don’t have one. I am writing this piece because T’Challa is an incredibly dear character to me and for better or worse, was part of my development and growth as a young man. And the representation he provides is important to any discussion about the character. And it is also important when discussing Shuri.
Created in 2005 by Reginald Hudlin and John Romita Jr., Shuri is the sister of T’Challa. The third of T’Challa’s retconned siblings, Shuri is undoubtedly the most popular, even prior to her film debut as played by Letitia Wright in 2018’s Black Panther. In 2009, during a storyline that saw T’Challa nearly killed by Dr. Doom and Namor, it is Shuri who inherits the mantles of Black Panther and Queen and became the lead character of the Black Panther comics for twelve issues. In doing so, she became the first Black female hero at Marvel to reach the twelve issue mark in a single series, a feat that speaks more about Marvel’s publishing and readership than it does about the brilliant characters like Captain Marvel and Storm that preceded Shuri. In fact, I would say that Shuri is as important as T’Challa in terms of representation. A competent warrior-queen who is arguably more ruthless in her defense of Wakanda than her brother. That her brother’s super-genius was downplayed in the film adaptation to give their dynamic more of a Q/James Bond vibe than Science Siblings ruffled my feathers, but only because their genius is what differentiates them from other Black heroes within Marvel’s publishing line. Well, that and the fact that they can tell the U.S. government to kick rocks and have the military to enforce it.
When discussing this idea of recasting T’Challa, we are also asking what to do with Shuri. To Emmanuel Noisette’s credit, he addresses this directly in his #RecastTChalla petition, saying “#RecastTChalla is not a call to replace Chadwick Boseman. (No one could ever do that.) It is not asking for an immediate replacement either. Nor is this calling for the prevention of other characters to take up the mantle of Black Panther like Shuri or anyone else. This petition is merely asking to continue the portrayal of T’Challa in the MCU.” Without that clause, I wouldn’t have signed the petition. Shuri has been a key figure to this world of Wakanda since her creation, and between 2012 and 2015, she and T’Challa both held the mantle of Black Panther simultaneously. It seemed inevitable to me that the films would follow suit, even prior to Boseman’s passing. Shuri fought alongside her brother in Avengers: Endgame, and within the larger perspective of the MCU, it’s impossible not to notice the proverbial passing of the torch as Marvel retires characters like Tony Stark and Steve Rogers and shifts focus to other characters. This year’s Falcon and the Winter Soldier and the currently-airing Hawkeye are two of the most prominent examples of this. Make no mistake about it, I want Shuri to shine as a lead.
Removed from the context of Noisette’s petition, I can understand how many would see the call to #RecastTChalla as an indictment on Shuri or Black women heroes in general. There’s a certain crabs-in-a-barrel mentality in the framing put forth by publications like TMZ and the New York Post, especially as conflicting reports by The Hollywood Reporter have brought into question whether delays in the production of Black Panther: Wakanda Forever are because of Letitia Wright’s vaccination status (the most recent word is that production will continue with Wright in January). Adding additional fuel to the fire in recent hours is the report by TMZ that Derrick Boseman, brother of Chadwick, believes his brother would want the character recast. Needless to say, there are a lot of emotions swirling around this issue as people who love T’Challa and Chadwick argue about what to do, which brings me to that other feeling.
I can’t stand fans. Of course, I am a fan myself, which also means I can’t stand myself a lot of times. I love that people can love things the way fans do. But I hate that they do it. I hate that I do it. Because love of a thing will convince you that you own it. And when it comes to T’Challa, Marvel owns that character. Disney owns Marvel. Which means that they can do whatever they want with the character. To be cruelly clear — they could have T’Challa brutally murdered to start off Black Panther: Wakanda Forever and then cancel the current comic run and there’s not a damn thing you or I could do about it. Frankly, Disney has the money to brutally murder you and me, and there’s not anything you or I could do about it.
If director Ryan Coogler has made the decision to take the franchise beyond T’Challa and Marvel Studios has okayed that creative decision, that’s what it’s going to be. Now, I hope that Coogler understands the importance of a Black polymath-superhero-king within this particular fictional universe, but that doesn’t change the fact that a real flesh-and-blood human being named Chadwick Boseman isn’t here right now. I’m having difficulty considering going to see a Black Panther film without T’Challa. That character means a lot to me, and frankly I might be too sad to want to pay to see it. I can’t imagine having to make the movie without the man who led the original film.
So to see some of the same toxicity that was rampant among #SnyderCut fans or the conversations surrounding Kathleen Kennedy’s position at Lucasfilm show up in conversations about my favorite character hurts. To see people online calling each other names over a movie which none of us have any control over hurts (and I’ve seen it on both sides, so please run to your mothers instead of the comment section with the he-said/she-said). Because, at least in my eyes, all the arguments about representation fall by the wayside when you recognize it’s the Mouse that owns T’Challa and collects the check.
To that effect, if you’re arguing online one way or the other about T’Challa, I might suggest that you instead (or also) take a look at any of the following:
- Bitter Root by David F. Walker, Chuck Brown, and Sanford Greene
- Dark Blood by LaToya Morgan, Walt Barna, and A.H.G.
- Is’nana the Were-Spider Vol. 1: Forgotten Stories and Vol. 2: The Hornet’s Web by Greg Anderson-Elysée, Walter Ostlie, Lee Milewski, Joshua Cozine, Daryl Toh, and Kat Aldrich
- The Leaders of the Free World by Corey Pruitt, Elijah Isaiah Johnson, Ross Hughes, and Toben Racicot
- Project: WILDFIRE by Quinn McGowan and Hannibal Tabu
- Scorpio by John Robinson IV, Marco Zuffranieri, Viviana Spinelli, and Andrea Smith
- Yohancé by Paul Louise-Julie
That doesn’t even scratch the surface of what’s out there, but it’s a good start. Even in the corporate sphere, you have the stuff Geoffrey Thorne is doing with Green Lantern, the new Milestone, and the Nubia: Real One graphic novel by L.L. McKinney and Robyn Smith all over at DC. And of course, T’Challa’s next story in the comics is set to drop later this month, and you can read what I thought about the new debut by John Ridley and Juann Cabal here.
Would I love to see T’Challa again in a live-action film? Absolutely. But there are so many other stories that I would love to see brought forth in that medium that don’t have half as many fans as they should. And if the desire really is to get Marvel to “do right” by T’Challa and Black heroes in general, well, they say competition makes you stronger. Let’s see if that’s true.
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