Over the past few years, filmmakers have increasingly performed what’s called “fan service” – making creative choices that recognize or accommodate fans’ desires. At its best, fan service is charming. This allows fans to feel seen and heard. It lets them believe they have a small hand in a huge creative enterprise. At worst, fan service can be exploitative, sexist, or racist. Very often it gives the impression that a movie or show doesn’t have a distinct point of view or creative vision, that the creators’ desperation for audience approval has taken precedence over good storytelling or creative ambition.
There was no choice Marvel and Mr. Coogler could have made that would please everyone. If they were recasting King T’Challa, many would have thought so too soon after Mr. Boseman’s death. If they had simply made him disappear for a movie by inventing a reason to put him on a mission somewhere, his absence would have been a distraction. Killing him, as they seem to have done, has angered some.
And, sadly, whichever character or actor takes on the mantle of Black Panther next will bear the brunt of fan doubt, disappointment and derision – especially if the new Black Panther will be, as some speculated, a woman. God forbid! (We’ve seen this time and time again, most notably in the Star Wars franchise, where actors of color have faced unconscionable harassment for contradicting some fans’ notions of who can be heroic in our imagined interstellar future.)
For now, the filmmakers have made the best decision possible. It would be deeply unfair to expect any actor, no matter how talented, to step into the massive shoes Mr. Boseman left behind. The new King T’Challa would forever rival our memory of the original. One would expect the successor to somehow channel Mr. Boseman’s swagger and gravitas, to replace the irreplaceable. And when the actor who plays the new king inevitably disappointed audiences that he wasn’t actually Mr. Boseman, he would become the target of intense anger. We shouldn’t ask anyone to be placed in that line of sight.
The #RecastTChalla movement seems well intentioned. But the fundamental question is not whether a role in a film should be recast or not; it’s about what representation requires. 2018’s Black Panther bore the brunt of fans’ inflated expectations, as a groundbreaking black superhero leading a major movie. It’s an unreasonable burden to place on a character, on an actor, on a film. Black people – men and boys as mentioned in the petition, but also women and girls – should have more than one superhero to have fun and see each other. The same goes for people of other races and ethnicities, cultures and identities. We shouldn’t be asking Marvel to recast T’Challa; we should ask him to expand the roster of heroes. We need to think bigger and demand more.
Whatever happens in the next Black Panther movie, supporters of #RecastTChalla might finally get their wish. In recent years, Marvel has introduced us to the multiverse, which allows multiple realities (and infinite extensions of its intellectual property) to coexist. In the Multiverse, there may be realities where T’Challa is alive and well and saving the world as Black Panther. We can still see some of those stories.