Black Panther's Unknown Next Chapter and More Franchises That Suffered the Death of a Star

The Marvel Cinematic Universe has hard decisions to make about how it moves forward following the death of Chadwick Boseman, a crushing loss for the Black Panther franchise and its fans.

By Natalie Finn Sep 04, 2020 2:00 PMTags
Watch: Chadwick Boseman Brought Black Superheroes to Life with "Black Panther"

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.

Chadwick Boseman's Best Roles

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.

Marvel Studios

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.

Black Panther Stars Remember Chadwick Boseman

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:

The Dark Knight

Christopher Nolan had finished shooting the second installment of his Dark Knight trilogy and was busy readying the sequel for its July release when Heath Ledger died on Jan. 22, 2008, of an accidental prescription drug overdose. And though the Batman universe seems to reboot every few years, anyway, with all new writers, directors and stars lending their approach, the Australian actor's Joker has since gone down in history as one of the all-time great movie villains, let alone superhero-film characters, and he posthumously won every conceivable honor, including the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. 

There's no indication that Joker, left grinning maniacally in Arkham Asylum at the end of this movie, was to reappear in The Dark Knight Rises—heck, even Nolan was proceeding film by film, having no plan beyond Batman Begins when he first started.

So in this case, it was all about honoring Ledger and his mighty performance (one that did not send him on an irreversible downward spiral, as his loved ones have since stressed in the face of all the rumors that the role messed him up), as opposed to scrambling to fill any lingering gaps in the storytelling.

But who knows what might have been if this Joker had still been around, for The Dark Knight Rises or the DC Universe in general?

Star Wars

Carrie Fisher's Princess Leia/General Organa was fully present (albeit in a pass-the-torch-to-the-next-generation way) for the making of 2015's Star Wars: Episode VII—The Force Awakens, J.J. Abrams mega-hyped revival of the franchise that had gone dormant (on the big screen, anyway) after the 1999-2005 prequel trilogy underwhelmed.

By the time Star Wars: Episode VIII—The Last Jedi opened in theaters on Dec. 15, 2017, however, Fisher had been gone for nearly a year, her death on Dec. 27, 2016, at the age of 60 a heartbreaking turn of events for generations of fans—of Star Wars and the caustically funny actress and author herself.

Fisher had finished filming her scenes, though, so The Last Jedi unfolded as planned, the tribute to Fisher coming at the end with the dedication: "In loving memory of our princess, Carrie Fisher." 

"I felt very strongly that we don't try to change her performance," director Rian Johnson told the New York Times in September of that year. "We don't adjust what happens to her in this movie. Emotionally, you can't help recontextualize it, now that she's gone. It's almost eerie how there are scenes that have an emotional resonance and a meaning, especially now. She gives a beautiful and complete performance in this film."

But how to account for Fisher's absence in the final film, 2019's Episode IX—The Rise of Skywalker? Abrams, returning as director, utilized leftover footage from The Force Awakens and visual effects (to make it look as if Daisy Ridley's Rey is having a conversation with her, etc.) to extend Leia's story until her conceivably organic death, using the last of her strength to reach out to her son by using the Force—preserving Fisher as the heart, if not the central face, of the story. 

"We just miss her. It's not fair that she's not here and she's not part of this," co-star Oscar Isaac told USA Today in 2019. "It's also a great reminder of what an incredible talent she was. Even more so than being a part of the last two hours of this 11-hour saga, it's being a part of the last film that she gets to be in that means a lot."

Harry Potter

Irish screen legend Richard Harris seemed the ideal actor to play Hogwarts headmaster Professor Albus Dumbledore, Harry Potter's mentor and protector as he comes into his own as a young wizard and vanquishes the forces of evil that seek to destroy him and all he loves.

But after appearing in the first two of the planned seven (and then eight) movies based on J.K. Rowling's beloved novels, Harris died in October 2002 at the age of 72, a couple months after being diagnosed with Hodgkin's disease. The posthumously released Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets became his final screen appearance.

In this case, the loss to the Harry Potter family was sad and fairly sudden—but the story was preordained and the show had to go on, so veteran British thespian Michael Gambon was swiftly brought in to wield Dumbledore's wand for the duration.

"I did six Harry Potter films pretending to be Richard Harris. I looked a bit like him!" Gambon, who had known his predecessor, quipped to HeyUGuys outside the 2012 British Independent Film Awards, where he had just been honored with the Richard Harris Award for career achievement.

Hunger Games

When Philip Seymour Hoffman was cast as Head Gamemaker and revolutionary Plutarch Heavensbee, starting with 2013's The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, you just knew he was going to bring that certain extra something.

He did, of course, and he would have brought even more, but the Oscar winner died of a heroin overdose on Feb. 2, 2014, with eight days of production left on Mockingjay—Part 2, which wasn't due out until November 2015.

"It was about as horrible a thing that can happen. It was just completely tragic. It threw us all," director Francis Lawrence told Vulture in 2014, when Mockingjay—Part 1 was coming out. "There were two substantial scenes that he had left, scenes with dialogue. All the other scenes he had were appearances in scenes where he had no dialogue."

With a week left to go, Francis tried to accommodate a cast and crew that was all of a sudden in mourning, bringing them back to set at first for half-days of filming, with no extras around, before they had to go big again.

One of those "substantial scenes" was an emotional face-to-face moment with Jennifer Lawrence's Katniss Everdeen in the final film that Hoffman had been discussing with Francis but never got to bring to fruition. Some digital effects were used to make it seem as if Plutarch was around more than he was, but the director largely used what he had—and the never-shot scene in question turned into Woody Harrelson's Haymitch reading a letter from Plutarch to Katniss.

"It took a week when I wasn't waking up and having to remember he was gone. We all suffered that together," Jennifer said of Hoffman. About working with the actor's stunt double, "This was just a few days after he died. Nobody could look at [the double]. I kept thinking it was Phil, it was a constant reminder that Phil was gone. I went up to him at the end of the day and just apologized because I couldn't imagine how awful that was."

Hoffman had several films still to be released when he died, but Mockingjay—Part 2 was the last to arrive in theaters, 20 months later. Francis told USA Today in 2015, when the series concluded, "I regret to have that kind of label of it being his last film. Because obviously, there's not quite enough of him in it. I would have liked his role to be larger." 

The Crow

Who knows what might have been if Brandon Lee hadn't died while making The Crow in 1993? Literally while making The Crow?

The 28-year-old son of martial arts icon Bruce Lee (also cut down in his prime, dead of a cerebral edema at 32) was mortally wounded in the stomach by a powder-less bullet that (while they were practicing with dead rounds) got stuck in the gun that, by the time they were using it to shoot Lee's character's death scene, was supposed to only contain blanks. 

Once upon a time it didn't seem as if sequels hatched before box office receipts were counted, but surely its makers were thinking they'd get a franchise out of the grim comics series created by James O'Barr about Eric Draven, an undead musician out to avenge his girlfriend Shelly's—and his own—murder. That made the movie's No. 1 opening weekend—and ultimate $50.7 million haul—all the more bittersweet.

But before the dark, morbidly funny and unequivocally disturbing movie could come out in 1994 and become a cult classic, director Alex Proyas and his crew had to finish it. Body doubles and digital effects were needed, including in the scene where Eric, risen from the grave, first puts on a face full of white makeup and becomes The Crow.

"I didn't want to finish it," Proyas recalled in a 2008 interview with "All I could see was that a very good friend of mine had died in front of me. I was absolutely devastated by that and I didn't care at that stage. It was very hard to see beyond that tragedy, at that time, and see things clearly. But I'm glad that I was convinced to finish the film, and that really came from Brandon's family. If they hadn't wanted to finish the film, I would have been very happy to have walked away from it."

He continued, "In retrospect, I'm glad we did it because it served Brandon's memory well, which is all that I really cared about in that film; that Brandon will be remembered as the great actor that he was, primarily because of The Crow. He really grew through the process of making that film. I knew he was doing good work; and that's exciting to be around when you're working with someone who's confident and coming of age in a way as an actor. He knew that film was going to be something special. He constantly surprised me with what he was doing on the set; there were really some wonderful moments that he achieved."

At the time, Proyas hadn't seen any of the sequels: 1996's The Crow: City of Angels, 2000's The Crow: Salvation and 2005's The Crow: Wicked Prayer—starring, respectively, Vincent Pérez, Eric Mabius and Edward Furlong as different murdered men who became the tormented title character, each more forgettable than the last.

Like it's predecessor, City of Angels opened at No. 1, but the enthusiasm dried up fast and it only made about $18 million (though that obviously didn't stop other attempts to make a go of the franchise).

Also count the director, who said he felt that making even a sequel was "morally wrong," among those who were firmly against a recent proposed remake of the original story, which at one point was going to star Jack Huston and, at another, Jason Momoa.

"It's a scheduling thing," Huston explained at Comic-Con in 2015, per Collider. "It was just a scheduling conflict. We were all so jazzed to do it. It was one of the hard decisions that I, you know, one can't do and luckily they're brilliant and I just want them to just go and make a great movie so I'm just putting my heart out and saying I love everything about those guys."

On Facebook in 2017, Proyas wrote, "The Crow would not be a movie worth 'remaking' if it wasn't for Brandon Lee. If it wasn't for Brandon you may never have even heard of this poignant little underground comic. It is Brandon's movie. I believe it is a special case where Hollywood should just let it remain a testament to a man's immense talent and ultimate sacrifice—and not have others re-write that story or add to it. I know sequels were made, and TV shows, and what have you, but the notion of 'rebooting' this story, and the original character—a character Brandon gave life to at too high a cost—seems wrong to me. Please let this remain Brandon's film."

So far, Eric and Shelly have been left to rest in peace.

Fast and the Furious

Paul Walker's shocking death on Nov. 30, 2013 (in a car crash, of all things), left two families reeling: his actual kin and the cast and crew of what was then a six-film franchise about loyalty, brotherhood, driving fast and the art of swerving between lawbreaking and saving the world from the really bad guys.

Left adrift in the middle of shooting Furious 7, two families became one when Walker's similarly handsome, well-built brothers Caleb and Cody Walker signed up to stand in for their fallen sibling, with Walker's Brian O'Conner ending up where he needed to be during postproduction.

Interestingly, though they could have given Brian a tragic exit (they had to rewrite his trajectory anyway), they chose to say goodbye in a gentler, albeit still heartbreaking, way: leaving him be on the beach with his wife, Mia (Jordana Brewster), and their son, Jack—Brian out of the game (but out there, living his best life) forever.

But if Walker hadn't died, in all likelihood he'd be planning on reuniting with his movie family for F9, currently slated for 2021.

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.

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