For Joe Robert Cole, co-writing the Wakanda Forever screenplay with director Ryan Coogler was a personal and professional challenge wrapped into one. The duo, who also wrote the original Black Panther, finished a draft featuring Chadwick Boseman’s T’Challa battling the water-logged monarch Namor (eventually played by Tenoch Huerta) before Boseman’s death in August 2020. They ended up dealing with their own grief while also writing about their characters’ loss, and radically reworking their story along the way. In an interview packed with spoilers — click away now if you haven’t seen the movie yet — Cole breaks down the many choices behind Wakanda Forever‘s twists and turns.
When and how did you realize that you wanted to give T’Challa a child?
T’Challa had a child in a previous iteration of the script prior to Chad’s passing. Him having a child was always in the DNA of what we wanted to do. We just weren’t sure, after he passed, about the best way to incorporate him. So there were various iterations of his son being in our new story. And we finally landed on the reveal at the end. There was a point where I think when Ramonda [Angela Bassett] goes to Haiti, we had talked about potentially having him be revealed there. So we knew we wanted him to be a part of the movie in some way, and landed, I think, on the best possible version.
That scene made me tear up, and I’m sure I’m not alone. I assume his son was going to be a bigger part of the movie before Chadwick passed away?
Yeah, [in] a previous iteration, we really were more child-focused in the narrative, and his son was a part of that. Obviously that changed, but we wanted him to exist in the film in some way. It was much more reduced. And there were conversations about, when do we reveal this information to the audience and what’s the best version of it? Not only emotionally, but just narratively for the story and how it affects the characters in the story when they find out this information, and so forth. We played around a little bit, but he was never going to have a much a larger presence after Chad passed.
Has there been any thought of publishing the original version of the script that you weren’t able to make? Maybe as a graphic novel? Getting it out to the world somehow?
I wouldn’t know about that. I certainly haven’t had any conversations. I don’t know how I’d feel about that. I don’t know how anybody feels about it. I’m not sure. But I’m really proud of what we’ve put out and how we’ve honored Chad. I feel like the film speaks for itself. Anything beyond that, it’s above my pay grade.
You had such a difficult thing to do after Chadwick’s death. How did the grieving process intersect with the challenge of reworking the story?
Chad’s loss shaped everything, in a lot of ways, once the decision was made not to recast. We all had a chance to weigh in a little bit on our thoughts on that. I think we all felt that he shouldn’t be [recast]. Once that decision was made, his death just logically becomes a part of the narrative going forward. And the exploration of how Wakanda and all of these characters that we love from the first movie dealt with that loss was really a way for us to explore who the new Black Panther should be organically, and to explore and broaden how we see all of these characters and how they move forward.
Thematically, that spoke to where we were all, personally, with Chad, which is we were working through our grief. We were striving to move forward with the film. So we were able to find our way to a theme that spoke to what we were all going through, which is: How do you overcome loss? How do you deal with grief and turn that into something hopeful and something aspirational? Ryan led the way, and we followed in that regard.
Namor and his homeland were always part of this story. Was there any point during the remaking of it where you wondered whether that could work with the new framework?
No, it was always part of it. Ryan talked to us all about it in terms of expanding the world of the first Black Panther movie to really incorporate another civilization, another community of color to really broaden out the world.
And we wanted, similar to Wakanda, to make Atlantis feel like a place that was real in the world. So we had started that work of rooting Talokan to an ancient Mayan community, that kind of broke away and hid the depths of the ocean and really digging into the meso-American history of the Mayan people.
That was always there, and we always knew we wanted Namor to be our antagonist. I think early on, they kicked around different ideas on who that might be. But by the time I was really in the fold, Namor was the guy.
Angela Bassett has so many great moments in this movie, but why and how did you decide to kill her character off?
When we were working through the narrative and the story, we were looking at how each of our characters might be impacted by T’Challa’s loss. And the person closest to him, the person that felt like they would be affected the most, was Shuri [Letita Wright], his sister. We started to look at her arc and the journey we wanted her to take. She takes, I think, an incredible journey on this through this film. Thinking of who she was in the first film, I’m really proud of how she has evolved and grown as a character. At the beginning of this movie, she’s the smartest person in all of Wakanda and yet she can’t save her brother. How does that affect someone?
We started to work through that journey of where she would be, her anger, her frustration and her pouring herself into her work. You think back to her point of view on the mystical side of Wakanda, how she’s more about science than she is about the ancestors and the ancestral plane. That exploration of her journey and her journey with her mother — who has lost a son, who has lost her husband, and who is dealing with grief and trying to help Shuri through that grief — we felt like it would be tremendously impactful to Shuri, and obviously to the nation, for Ramonda to be lost in the flood. How Shuri pivots off of that, and how Wakanda will pivot. From there, it launches M’Baku. It launches our characters in new directions. Which is really wonderful.
As you said, you had to discuss who the next Black Panther would be. And of course Shuri’s comic book counterpart does become Black Panther, so there was a huge push in that direction. But M’Baku [Winston Duke] would’ve been an amazing Black Panther — that would’ve been fascinating. Tell me about the back and forth on that, and whether there were other candidates, perhaps?
We would kick around the ideas, and try to extrapolate where the story goes and what’s the most impactful choice — what’s the best journey? And where do you go after the film in terms of those characters. M’Baku certainly was someone that got kicked around a little bit. I think you’re correct because in the comics, Shuri is Black Panther and there’s a natural organicness, I guess is the best way to say it, to her becoming Panther. But you kick the tires on all sorts of ideas. And you just want to make the best decision and do what’s best for the story.
Nakia [Lupita Nyong’o] could’ve been great, too.
That got kicked around! Her name got kicked around for sure.
What’s cool about the return of Killmonger and the use of Michael B. Jordan is, it’s exciting to just see him, even if it’s just a cameo. But it was a key plot driver in the movie. Tell me about getting that in there and how that worked.
We always wanted to have Michael return, and I feel like it was always going to be in the ancestral plane with Shuri having taken the potion. The question was always like, how do you achieve the thing I think that you’re talking about? How do you make it more than just more than just, everyone’s excited because Michael’s amazing, and the character’s amazing? How is it relevant to Shuri’s journey and become a pivot point for her character?
Then if you think about it, [in the first movie] his journey was about vengeance as well, and anger and frustration. That’s a part of what we tried to lay in with her early on, the anger of losing someone, the sense of loss. And then how losing her mother would escalate her feelings of wanting vengeance. We just tried to build on that, so that he is presenting her with a choice of: Is she going to move towards the direction that Killmonger would move? Or is she going to do something different? The idea was to successfully build the stakes for her so that would resonate. So it would feel earned that she would feel that sort of [yearning for] vengeance.
But one thing I also really loved about the Killmonger scene that we found was his point of view about how he changed Wakanda. Killmonger came in and spoke to the question of, Am I my brother’s keeper? And how Wakanda had not looked out for the globe. Here you have Ramonda the Queen, who is diametrically opposed — she was much more isolationist than T’Challa was — who saves RiRi, this African-American teenager. There is an argument that prior to Killmonger, that might not have happened. So were able to make that scene not only relevant to Shuri’s character, but also relevant to the nation of Wakanda.
You handled the passing of T’Challa not only tastefully, but quickly. You start in media res with her in the lab trying to find the cure, and it goes so fast. Once you realized you weren’t going to recast and that you had to handle this so directly, how did you come to this place of just hitting it right on the head at the beginning of the movie the way you did?
The conversations were, everyone’s gonna come into this movie knowing that he’s passed away. When is the right time to address that? And it felt like it should be addressed right up front. Otherwise, everyone’s waiting for it. So you address it and you do it. Credit to Ryan, the way they shot it and [cinematographer] Autumn [Durald] and [composer] Ludwig [Göransson] and everyone involved in how they put the sequence together. But if you handle it that way, then you can get into the movie and people aren’t waiting for the acknowledgement of what we all know.
And were there ever scenes that might have needed a CGI Chadwick, or was that kind of ruled out from the start?
I don’t remember any conversations about that. No. I don’t think we were ever…I don’t think anyone felt that would be appropriate.
You’re working on the script for a Snoop Dogg biopic. What are your thoughts on that and what are your plans?
Yes, I am! I’m super-excited about it. He’s an amazing, universally beloved person and from where he started his life, and the journey to where he is now, is epic and inspiring. There’s a lot that I think people don’t know, just in terms of the man he is, and his relationship with his wife and how close they are, how they’ve known each other for so long. I’m excited to to be a part of the team.
And Allen Hughes is directing, and Menace II Society and his work in that time period and that space is amazing. So it’s just a great team to be a part of. And I get to spend time with Snoop!
Have you started talking about a third Black Panther movie?
This one was a journey. So I think everybody’s excited for the film to be out there. And that’s as far as we’ve gone.
Are you open to other MCU stuff?
I loved my time working with Kevin [Feige] and Lou [D’Esposito] and Victoria [Alonso] and Nate [Moore] and obviously Ryan. I feel very blessed and fortunate to be a part of Marvel and to work on projects. I always answer the phone. If they have something they wanna talk to me about, I’m open to hear it!
The character of Riri Williams, a.k.a. Ironheart — I kind of assumed that was a Marvel mandate to include her, since she has her own Disney+ show coming up. But you made it seem so integrated into the story.
Ryan has talked about Terminator 2 as a template, right? One side wants to kill her and one side wants to protect her. And we also wanted the idea of tying an African-American character [into the story] similar to how we did with Killmonger. So it was really about that. And then, obviously, she’s got her own show and all of that, and it was great that it can work, but it was much more of a story decision than it was a kind of marketing decision.
Bringing in Julia-Louis Dreyfuss character, who’s been floating around on various other MCU projects was fun, and making her the ex-wife of Everett Ross’ character was as well. How did that all come into the film?
She’s amazing, number one. So you get the opportunity to write something for her. That’s awesome. She’s also in the world of the MCU and we’re always trying to find opportunities to broaden out the world of other characters. And we felt it would be great to give Ross an ex. It’s a cool, fun thing to do and to see them play off each other. So yeah, it was an organic thing.
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There’s a quick mention of Fenty makeup in the movie now. Do you think we can safely say, then, that Rihanna exists in the Marvel universe?
Indeed! [Laughs] Indeed.
What was the hardest thing to crack in the writing process?
That’s a good question. I think Shuri’s journey. In the first film she was funny and she was irreverent and her point of view was very different than where we find her in the second movie. Trying to really make that a meaningful journey and one that felt earned, knowing how we wanted the film to end….
You have to do all the work before you get to the finale and before you get to the beach and trying to calibrate that, and lay in all of the things necessary with her mother and the ritual and, all of those conversations — all of the trial and error that goes into that, I think was difficult. And I’m particularly proud of it.