When news broke that Chadwick Boseman had died at the age of 43 last August, it was—and remains—a devastating shock in a year already full of so much loss and tragedy. The actor had been privately battling colon cancer for four years, all while bringing iconic characters and historical figures to life, from Thurgood Marshall to Stormin’ Norman in Da 5 Bloods. He was a real-life superhero who found the strength to portray these characters in between surgeries and chemotherapy treatment, telling their stories so that future generations could continue to find inspiration in them for years to come. Among these roles was one that a statement on his Twitter account said was the “honor of his career”: King T’Challa. Now, three years after Black Panther hit theaters, Boseman has left us with one final performance as T’Challa in the first season of What If…?.
In this week’s episode, “What If… T’Challa Became a Star-Lord?”, T’Challa makes his first (and likely most prominent) appearance of the four episodes Boseman contributed his voice to. The 30-minute narrative imagines a world in which a young T’Challa gets abducted by Yondu and his crew of Ravagers in 1988 instead of Peter Quill, and it explores what sort of impact that difference would have on the Marvel universe at large. This change in backstory and setting provided Boseman the opportunity to have some fun tinkering with the beloved character he first brought to life in 2016’s Captain America: Civil War—an experience we’ll get to see two more times as Boseman plays other versions of the character in the series. Boseman doesn’t disappoint in this space-traveling iteration of T’Challa, bringing the same energy and grace from his live-action performances. “[Chadwick] was excited to play this particular version of T’Challa because it was different,” What If…? director Bryan Andrews recently said at a press conference for the series. “Because it was a version of him playing the king, but the king without the mantle, the royalty and everything else that goes along with it. He could lighten it up and get more jokey with it. He was excited to bring back that flavor to T’Challa.”
Beyond Boseman’s performance alone, the episode provides a blueprint for how the show can succeed moving forward. Unlike the series premiere, which limited itself within the storytelling confines of Captain America: The First Avenger, the second episode relies on only one familiar moment from Guardians of the Galaxy to kick off a narrative of its own. When Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) claims the ancient Orb in the opening minutes of the 2014 film, he introduces himself to Korath (Djimon Hounsou) under his self-given outlaw name, Star-Lord, expecting to strike fear in the Pursuer’s heart. But Korath—like much of the viewing audience—had never even heard of him. So when T’Challa’s path leads him to this same moment in the alternate universe introduced in What If…?, not only does Korath almost immediately recognize the Ravager as the legendary Star-Lord, he falls just short of dropping his gun and asking for his autograph. While the episode doesn’t linger on the beats of Guardians of the Galaxy, What If…? uses this reversal to show how different T’Challa’s journey has been from Quill’s up to this point, and how much more he was able to accomplish in the 20 years since he was abducted from Earth.
After that opening scene, What If…? takes T’Challa—a character traditionally rooted to his Earthly kingdom of Wakanda—to the great unknown of space, and doesn’t look back until the end of the episode. And while it reintroduces familiar faces and settings from the Guardians films—Nebula, the Collector, Thanos, and Knowhere, among others—the storyline digresses from anything Peter Quill or even the Black Panther did in past MCU movies. Above all, the episode centers on T’Challa, and how, despite hailing from an isolationist nation, he remains true to what makes him such a deserving king in the first place, even in the furthest reaches Andrews and head writer A.C. Bradley could imagine. “T’Challa is an interesting character because he’s not a character who arcs himself, he’s a character who changes the world around him,” Bradley recently explained. “He doesn’t go through a transformation, he transforms the world. So, taking a step back, [we pondered] how could T’Challa transform outer space?”
There is something to be said about how this episode dunks on the inadequacy of Peter Quill, by highlighting how much better things would have been had the noble T’Challa taken his place in space. But more importantly, it encapsulates how revered a character the Wakandan is. As Bradley says, T’Challa transforms the galaxy: He transforms Yondu and his band of thieves and smugglers into an intergalactic Robin Hood and his Merry Men, as the crew changes their ways to help the masses; he transforms Drax the Destroyer into Drax the Bartender; he even transforms Thanos, a villain who snapped T’Challa out of existence in a different lifetime, into a member of this reformed team of Ravagers. (Even if the Mad Titan still believes his original genocidal plan for the universe has its merits.) The second episode, like the series premiere, is very much indebted to previous MCU films, and it uses viewers’ familiarity with these characters and stories to subvert expectations. But this time around, the show is able to effectively build off them rather than remain beholden to their plot points.
Despite the success of the episode, watching Boseman’s final turn as T’Challa is tragically bittersweet. Black Panther writer-director Ryan Coogler, as well as his returning cast now led by Lupita Nyong’o and Letitia Wright, face the daunting task of trudging on with the upcoming 2022 sequel, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever. But Coogler is determined to carry Boseman’s legacy forward. “I’m incredibly sad to lose [Chadwick], but I’m also incredibly motivated that I got to spend time with him,” Coogler said on the Jemele Hill is Unbothered podcast in March. “You spend your life hearing about people like him. For this individual, who is an ancestor now, I was there for it. It’s such an incredible privilege that fills you up as much as it knocks you out. So often as Black people, we have to pick up the pieces after loss.”
At the Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings premiere on Monday, Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige mentioned that Boseman had loved What If…?’s version of T’Challa so much that conversations had taken place with Coogler about how to potentially integrate the character into Black Panther 2. Sadly, we’ll never get the chance to see what that change would have looked like, or where the Wakandan Star-Lord’s journey could have taken him next in future seasons of What If…?. But while an episode like this can never be replicated due to the loss of Boseman, it still shows how What If…? can continue to elevate familiar Marvel characters by making good on the series’ limitless potential. It has the rare ability to step out from the shadows of past films and into uncharted territory. Regardless of how the show proceeds to develop in its first nine-episode run, What If…? has given us the gift of hearing Boseman’s voice again as he reprises one of his many iconic roles one last time.