‘Black Panther: Wakanda Forever’ Alters How Superhero Stories Handle Death

'Black Panther: Wakanda Forever' Alters How Superhero Stories Handle Death

There’s a line in a 1991 issue of Marvel’s X-Factor comic book series where Professor Xavier makes fun of the X-Men’s inability to remain dead: “Sometimes it seems that in mutant heaven, there are no Pearly Gates, but instead revolving doors,” he tells Jean Grey, a character whose own high-profile death had been written away within a decade.

It’s a trend that only got more popular in subsequent years. A funeral scene for the Martian Manhunter in 2008’s Final Crisis shows Superman ending his eulogy, “We’ll all miss him. And pray for a resurrection.” He got his wish; the Manhunter was back in action two years later, after the events of the Blackest Night storyline, which involved a god of death resurrecting even more dead characters. Superman has died; Batman has died. Spider-Man too. All have, in some form or another, been revived. In modern comics, death is at most a temporary setback and something rarely dealt with seriously.

This attitude toward mortality has bled into superhero movies. Superman perished at the end of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, only to be revived a year later in Justice League. A whole swath of characters turned to dust at the end of Avengers: Infinity War, only to be snapped back to life in Endgame.

Even those characters whose deaths seemed as final as possible onscreen—Iron Man, who sacrificed himself for the greater good when it counted, or Black Widow, who did the same without as big an audience—have the potential to return, thanks to the endless possibilities of the multiverse and Disney’s similarly infinite checkbook.

Yet no amount of money or space magic could bring back T’Challa. Following actor Chadwick Boseman’s untimely and tragic passing in 2020, all plans for a sequel to 2018’s wildly successful and beloved Black Panther featuring its title character were torn asunder. There were those who hoped, and some that demanded, the role be recast. But what Boseman brought to the character—passion, intensity, subtlety—was irreplaceable. Putting a new actor in his place would’ve felt like erasing what he’d done or turning him into an interchangeable cog. His work on Black Panther was too vital for that.

The path eventually chosen—to write Boseman’s death into Marvel canon by killing T’Challa off-screen—was, then, as unavoidable as it was brave. It deepens the audience’s emotional connection with Wakanda Forever, out Friday, by allowing them to channel their grief for the actor into their grief for the character, and it invites them to participate in the movie’s own process of coming to terms with death.

No one is saying Marvel will never again recast an actor. Just last month word came out that Harrison Ford would take over for William Hurt as Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross in 2024’s Captain America: New World Order. But the studio’s willingness to treat death as an absolute signals a shift. It treats T’Challa’s passing with a permanence and respect that superhero stories struggle with, and it creates an emotional depth the genre often lacks. It gives Boseman’s Black Panther a legacy, rather than making him no different than the myriad rebooted and reincarnated heroes who came before him. 

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