In the Marvel Cinematic Universe, no superhero movie stands alone for long, and Black Panther was to be no exception.
Before the 2018 blockbuster grossed $1.3 billion and became the highest-earning film of all time from a Black director, before it won three Oscars and was nominated for Best Picture, there was a sequel in the works, with Chadwick Boseman set to return as Wakanda's King T'Challa. It would be his fifth outing in the vibranium suit, including his character's 2016 debut in Captain America: Civil War and the last two Avengers movies.
Just weeks ago, that plan felt alive and well. Even Boseman, who had only revealed to a handful of people that he'd been battling colon cancer since 2016, is said to have felt confident that he would once again power through.
But the 43-year-old actor died on Aug. 28, leaving Black Panther II without a star, Wakanda without a king and countless people crushed. He had been part of a sprawling gazillion-dollar Hollywood enterprise, but the inspiration Boseman had served playing the leader of a proud, independent African nation that was rich in resources and undisturbed by colonizers couldn't be quantified. You could see it in the smiles on wide-eyed kids' faces, hear it in the cheers in the theaters and, okay, maybe you could quantify it a little at the box office and in merchandise receipts.
Mainly, however, the intangible effects of Black Panther are what Boseman will be remembered for and which are still being felt, not least in the outpouring of grief from those who are going to be mourning his loss for the foreseeable future.
The what-might've-been is too depressing to fathom (though if you're in the mood for a good cry, go ahead), but by signing up to play Black Panther, the classically trained actor and Howard University alum—whose breakout performance came playing trailblazing baseball star Jackie Robinson in the 2013 biopic 42—had already ensured both his place in pop culture history and his ability to write his own ticket moving forward.
And there would have been so much more, including at least one more outing as T'Challa, again to be directed by Ryan Coogler (he has said that he wasn't sold on making a superhero movie at all until he met Boseman, who had already been in Civil War and was locked in for Black Panther, and envisioned the world they could build). Instead, Disney-owned Marvel Studios—whose president, Kevin Feige, was reportedly as stunned as anybody to find out that Boseman had been terminally ill—is left having to figure out how to move forward without its leading man.
This isn't the first franchise, burgeoning or established, to unexpectedly lose a beloved cast member, but it does find itself in a uniquely terrible position, having lost the vibrant, charismatic, seemingly unstoppable young actor whose character is the would-be franchise after the first installment made all kinds of history.
In this day and age (of CGI, of multi-tentacled comic book lore, of Internet outrage), simply recasting another actor as T'Challa seems like something that won't happen. Boseman's shoes are too big to fill. Insiders and armchair experts alike seem to like the idea of T'Challa's sister, Shuri, played by Letitia Wright, becoming the new Black Panther, a temporary transfer of power that occurred in Ta-Nehisi Coates' 2016 Black Panther comics series—and a likelier turn of events in a universe where Chris Evans has given his Captain America shield to Anthony Mackie's Falcon and Tessa Thompson's Valkyrie is now queen of New Asgard while Chris Hemsworth's Thor is off needling Chris Pratt's Peter Quill.
But that sad, sad story in which T'Challa's absence is dealt with has to be written nonetheless. And no matter what they come up with for the Black Panther sequel, which is currently slated for a 2022 release, it's going to hurt all over again.
That being said, audiences will be hungry to see a proper send-off for Boseman, whatever it entails, whether they utilize flashbacks, unused footage, inevitably haunting special effects or extremely clever story-telling—or a combination of all of the above.
Here's a sampling of how other major movie productions handled their own tragedies:
At the end of the day, the makers of these films were all faced with a glaring loss, and they had to do what felt right for their productions.
As Black Panther II moves forward, there will be no way to please everybody. Critics will have their day online. Hashtags will trend. Someone's cancellation will be threatened. But what these movies all have in common is that tragedy struck, and everyone involved did their best to carry on in the departed's honor.
That we know, at least, is what Marvel is going to do.