Ever-Brilliant in his Physical and Stoic Performances, the Black Panther Actor is Dead at 43.

Chadwick Boseman became larger than life by playing larger-than-life figures. He was the first black man to play Major League Baseball, and he was the first black Supreme Court justice. He was the Godfather of Soul, and he was the King of Wakanda. This summer in Da 5 Bloods, he espoused the legacies of game-changing African-Americans and then became a legacy changing the lives of his brothers in combat. 

As T’Challa, the role with which I’m sure you’re most familiar, Boseman brought a new style of superhero to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. No other Avenger has been as contemplative or quiet—in fact, those words feel like antonyms to the franchise. Boseman carved out a new archetypal path in Black Panther, showing audiences not all superhumans need be quippy egomaniacs to keep our attention. Across four films he sought vengeance with conviction, felt conflicted but stayed righteous, and commanded without losing perspective. Go ahead and make your arguments for Captain America and Iron Man, but I contend no other Marvel hero has been as well-rounded and compelling, especially with only one movie as the star.

You may be less familiar with his breakout role as Jackie Robinson in 42. In one of the better recent baseball movies, he goes toe-to-toe with Harrison Ford and shows he can humanize an icon, which is one of the greatest legacies he leaves as an actor. His best-known roles may be larger-than-life, but his interpretations of them felt personal and specific, a feat he pulled off again in Spike Lee’s latest. As Stormin’ Norman, he brought all the goodwill he earned as T’Challa to the real world; even though he only lived in flashbacks, he was felt in every scene, a kind of presence few actors can pull off.

As I’ve been reflecting on why this loss feels so heavy, my mind keeps drifting back to the early passing of Heath Ledger. The political and social climate in 2020 contributes in a way that it didn’t when we were anticipating The Dark Knight, but losing a beloved performer out of left field cuts deeper than losing Olivia de Havilland at 104. Superheroes are modern mythology, so when someone who convinced us he was invincible disappears, it’s cognitive dissonance. Though most of us never met Boseman, his death stings for anyone who loves movies, both because he was excellent at his craft and because he represented new and more opportunity for black representation in film. The irony is these gone-too-soon actors tend to become larger-than-life icons after death, but we already knew he was one before this weekend. 

– Taylor Blake

Am I reading this right??”  That was my initial reaction to the push-notification (courtesy of The Hollywood Reporter) that Chadwick Boseman, star of the Marvel’s Black Panther, had died.  The details were sparse, though it made clear that the 43-year-old actor had succumbed to a four-year struggle with colon cancer, which he’d manage to keep completely secret.  A gut punch, to be sure.  

Few have demonstrated the unique talent of Boseman, someone who’s both undeniably made his mark but also was just ramping up, no doubt, to bigger and greater things.  One could make the argument that he was far and away the single best part of all the films we know him for.  42 and Get On Up might all be cinematically devoid without him playing Jackie Robinson and James Brown.  Even Black Panther, for its vital representational breakthrough and remarkable world building, suffers without Boseman’s stoic nobility at its center.  (I’ve argued that his most impressive outing as T’Challa is actually his introductory movie, Captain America: Civil War, wherein the character is given his greatest arc amid the many other priorities that film is juggling).

The next night we watched Black Panther.  I hadn’t seen it since it came out.  The thing that really struck me was how on Earth 616 does Marvel Studios carry on with that series?  Unlike Batman or even Spider-Man, the title character can’t just be recast.  It’s not “the suit” that’s the star. In pop culture terms, the loss of Boseman is seismic.  He was the crucial embodiment of a major heroic character that the black community was so, so hungry for.  The time for a character like Black Panther to be presented on that kind of A-level blockbuster scale was ridiculously overdue in 2018 when the film dropped.  Yes it was a pre-ordained hit.  All Marvel Cinematic Universe films are.  But Black Panther, in true Wakanda fashion, took it several levels further.  And so too did Chadwick Boseman, who boldly made the film in the face of his then-recent cancer diagnosis.  

This simply wasn’t supposed to happpen.  How is this the end of an actor we’ve seen die twice in four movies playing his iconic signature character, who is still very much alive?  We now know that Boseman was fighting hard for his life behind the scenes.  He’s being called superheroic by many, and that’s not wrong.  But more to the point, he never stopped clawing and climbing, and absolutely made the most of every opportunity he earned.  In terms of leveraging poignant physicality, laser-like emotional depth, and even well-placed humor, there simply is no equal.  He was one of a kind, and he literally leaves us reeling.

– Jim Tudor