Ryan Coogler On The Pain, Loss, And Triumph Of ‘Black Panther: Wakanda Forever’

It’s nearly impossible to know what Ryan Coogler went through trying to make Black Panther: Wakanda Forever. I’ve been calling this movie a miracle because it’s truly remarkable what Coogler has done here. Combining the emotional toll of losing Chadwick Boseman – a friend and collaborator – with the logistical reality of no longer having the lead actor and character for one of the most popular franchises in existence is devastating and, in normal situations, there’s no way it would continue. But Black Panther is not a normal franchise. The importance of this character, coupled with what Chadwick Boseman meant to people … it’s as if sheer will itself got this sequel made. Even though, as Coogler admits, he started from a place where he thought there was just no way he could even attempt to do this.

In Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, T’Challa is gone and Wakanda must still move on. The world is now aware of Wakanda’s precious metal, Vibranium, which has created a threat to Wakanda as other nations seek to steal the precious metal, or, in the United State’s case, create a Vibranium detector, which was thought to be impossible. As it turns out, Wakanda isn’t the only place with Vibranium, the underwater city of Talokan has thrived, undetected, for centuries, but now their community is at risk and their leader, Namor (Tenoch Huerta), blames Wakanda and, in exchange for not waging war, he wants the scientist who created the Vibranium detector killed. This “scientist” is a student at MIT named Riri Williams (Dominique Thorne), which forces Shuri (Letitia Wright) and Okoye (Danai Gurira) out on a quest to save her.

Ahead, Coogler says Namor was always part of the script, and Boseman was a collaborator on what Namor should represent in terms of Indigenous Meso-American representation. Namor is not a villain. He’s actually got a point during the events of Wakanda Forever, which makes his case compelling. Coogler explains all the intricacies that went into making Namor just right, which he credits to, “a lot of hard work.”

But first, he talks about Chadwick Boseman. I can’t imagine Coogler was looking forward to doing press for a movie that there’s no doubt took an emotional toll on him. And being aware of all that, it did bring some need levity to start off with, when Coogler, at the nudging of his publicist, started out with a joke on me. (Coogler’s publicist (Bebe Lerner) also reps Jason Reitman, and the last time Reitman and I spoke, we spent a probably unhealthy amount of time talking about The Garbage Pails Kids Movie.)

Ryan Coogler: Hey, what’s up, Mike? Somebody asked me to ask you about what you know about Garbage Pail Kids.

Wait, what … was this Jason Reitman?

[Laughs] No, it was Bebe.

Ah, okay, this makes sense now … yeah somehow Garbage Pail Kids comes up every time I talk to Jason Reitman, and then I hear about it from Bebe.

Wow. I remember the Garbage Pail Kids.

But seriously, all things considered, this movie is a miracle. Was there ever a point, right after the terrible news, you thought you couldn’t do it?

Yeah… Yeah, absolutely. I was in shock. Followed by just… deep sadness. You know what I’m saying? It would’ve been that for me, even if I wasn’t spending every waking hour writing the script for the guy for the past several months. But it was amplified by that because I was just in my office for days on end imagining writing words that only he could say. That he would be excited to do and audiences would be excited to see him perform and putting him in situations.

I was having check-ins with him, letting him know what we were going to tackle in the film. He was excited about the potential for indigenous American representation and what that could mean. He always had an incredible insight for how the audience would respond to things. I was excited to get to work with him. Then, when you’re expecting somebody to be around, you don’t take the time to appreciate what they mean to you. It’s one of the more profound realities about our relationships as mortal beings. You know what I’m saying?

I do.

You don’t reflect on what somebody means to you, the space that they occupy in your mind and your heart until you no longer have access to them.

Once you decide, okay, I’m doing this, was everything on the table still? Was there any actual serious thought to recasting? I don’t even know how you could that. What you wound up doing seems like the perfect choice.

I’ll put it to you like this … I’ll put it to you like this: it’s actually difficult to have that conversation with people who don’t know us and weren’t there when we made the first one. I actually understand that, I extend grace to people as best I can because I know that they would never get it. You know what I mean?

Right.

Unless you were there with us for those several hundred days and years, you wouldn’t understand what he meant to us. You wouldn’t understand what he meant to the chosen family that was the people that made that movie. I get it, from a distance, somebody might say, “Hey, why didn’t you all do this?”

To me, it wouldn’t make any sense, but people were saying that was an option and I didn’t get that.

People are prisoners of their own perspectives. Your perspective is all you have. I get it. We were there. We are the ones who made it with him. He was an irreplaceable person, it’s as simple as that. For us, because we came to know him, because we came to know him through the process of creating that work, the two are very much linked for us. Maybe not for other people, but for us it is. To answer the question, was that ever seriously considered? It’s difficult to say if it was ever seriously considered. We considered just about everything, but like I said, I considered not making another one or taking myself out of the picture. We ran the gamut of thoughts, but we wouldn’t make a good movie that way. You know what I’m saying? It’s the truth. I don’t know that we would’ve made a movie at all.

It is weird to switch gears from such a subject like that, but I do have to tell you, the deception of Namor (Tenoch Huerta) is so great in this movie.

How nice of you to say.

I’ve always loved Sub-Mariner and I’ve been reading his books again, just getting ready for this movie. I couldn’t figure out how you’d pull him off because he’s such a blowhard in the comics.

[Laughs] Yeah, yeah, yeah.

How’d you do that? Was he always going to be the villain, even before? Actually, I would say antagonist. He’s not even a villain.

Yeah, yeah, antagonist is the correct word, I would say. And he always was. He always was the antagonist in this version, since I signed on to do another one. It was something that the studio was excited about. It was something that Chadwick was excited about. Fairly early into the process, we settled on him building a culture out of Indigenous Meso-American influences. We were always excited about that. Chadwick was excited about that. That was present in that original script that was written before Chadwick passed away. Yeah, how we pulled it off? A lot of hard work. I have incredible collaborators. My co-writer is Joe Robert Cole.

Yeah, I talked to him for the first Black Panther movie.

Obviously, Nate Moore was present, Kyana Davidson was present from Marvel and Kevin Feige and Victoria Alonso and Lou D’Esposito. It was a team effort.

Well, Namor has a point. You can see his point of view. There’s a point in the movie where he feels betrayed by Ramonda and he’s not wrong.

No, no, for sure, for sure. The thing is about Namor, is that we’re consistent. The technical side of what we do is just we’re doing an adaptation, and this character has been around for almost 100 years.

Yeah, since 1939.

He hasn’t been represented in film or television yet. It was like, okay, so what are the things about him that are consistent? He’s got wings on his ankles, he’s got dark hair, he can fly. He’s really strong. He’s very arrogant.

I love the wings. Did anyone try to talk you out it?

No.

Okay, good.

No. I do think that having Aquaman out in the world, in film language, and being successful in the marketplace, I think it was a great bit of indirect guidance for us to lean into the things that made Namor different from Aquaman. Just out of respect to the audience because a lot of people saw that movie. A lot of people love that movie. It was our task to, obviously, put our heads down and blinders on and make our movie, but also have a sense of awareness of what the marketplace might want to respond to, and might be interested in. I think giving people something different, if you can give somebody something good, that’s also unique, I think it’s always better. We wanted to lean into the things that make those two characters different from each other because they have a lot of other similarities in publishing.

For us, it was like, Yo, you got to wear the green trunks. He’s got to have his winged ankles. He’s got to be relatively arrogant. He has to be long-lived. He’s got to be a child of two worlds, not really fitting into either one. He has to be very confident and very dangerous. In the comics, Namor can always back up what he’s saying.

That’s true.

It’s always interesting. He has to be charismatic. Namor, in the comics, is very romantic. He hits on other people’s wives, you know what I’m saying?

I do, he hits on Sue Storm quite often.

Yeah! This character, he had to have all of these things to him, but we’re making a Black Panther movie, so what are our tones? What are our themes? What are the themes that we like to plant our flag in and say, This is what we do that nobody else does? Through that, the cultural specificity comes about. The gray area comes about: this idea of a family drama mixed with a geopolitical thriller, mixed with a little bit of crime film. These are secret societies, in a way, where deals are made eye-to-eye, face-to-face, and nobody else needs to know, and slap that idea of all those things.

And it’s a film about motherhood and the idea that that was his most impactful relationship. Through the story of him and his mom, and her life and her death, that impacted his view of the world. That gave us the other element of Namor in the publishing, its extreme xenophobia. You know what I mean? It’s this idea of, “it’s us and it’s everybody else.” And him seeing the world that way. I thought if we could capture all of those things in this guy and make him someone that you would care about, in a way, then we can have something special. That was what we went after.

Well, you did it.

I thank my collaborators for any success it had. It wasn’t anything on my own.

Well, like I said, with everything you had to deal with, this movie is a miracle. I know it probably took 10 years off your life, but I’m so glad you made it.

[Laughs] I appreciate the empathy, bro. It means a lot.

You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter.

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