Two years after his triumphant return in Avengers: Endgame, King T'Challa (Chadwick Boseman) has reappeared in the Marvel Cinematic Universe with a new story, one exploring a reality in which he never became the beloved Black Panther. Though brief, the new episode of Disney + series What If...? brings Boseman's journey as an MCU icon to a poetic close, offering up a new ending for our forever hero in which he fulfills a new dream: traversing the endless expanse of the universe.
What If...?, the highly anticipated follow-up to Disney+ originals like WandaVision and Loki, dives headfirst into the concept of a multiverse. In the animated series, nothing is as we know it; supervillains like Thanos (Josh Brolin) are walking the righteous path and Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) never became Captain America. T'Challa's story is wildly different as well, leading him to the stars instead of the throne room of his home country of Wakanda.
As a child, T'Challa desired to see the world rather than protect his legacy, and a late night adventure outside of the invisible forcefield of Wakanda led to him being abducted by and subsequently recruited into the not-so-elite fold of the Ravagers, led by Yondu (Michael Rooker). Over the years, T'Challa rose in the ranks of the Ravagers, becoming known across the galaxy for stealing from the rich and giving to the poor, making it his mission to protect and serve beings in need. Episode two of What If...? sees this universe's Star-Lord and his crew coming across a great threat, working together to stop the nefarious plans of new menace to society, the Collector (Benicio del Toro).
The impact of What If...? on the comic book world can't be understated, especially when it comes to Boseman's role as T'Challa. The first Black superhero of the MCU, T'Challa's story and its wonderfully nuanced discussion and portrayal of the African diaspora were groundbreaking, giving fans across generations hope for equitable representation and proving that diversifying the superhero space was in fact worth the risk. (Black Panther broke box office records, raked in billions of dollars, and even won the MCU a few prestigious awards). However, after the actor passed away from colon cancer in August 2020, there was a giant vacuum within the MCU that sparked an important question: what were we going to do without the Black Panther?
Fortunately, with this new Disney+ offering, we can stave off the pain of a Boseman-less reality for a little while longer. The series allowed the actor one last stab at the role of T'Challa, providing him the opportunity to have even more fun with the character; while the Wakandan we knew mostly had to have the stiff-upper lip that's expected of a royal, What If...?'s T'Challa is more playful and far less regal as a result of being raised by a band of bandits. Even with the storyline changes, however, one thing remains the same: the heart for positively impacting the world that both T'Challa and Boseman were known for.
"He wanted every chance he could to get T'Challa out there, and this was going to be one of those last chances," What If...? director Bryan Andrews told EW of the late star. "He was a super pro and wonderful and super amazing and we had no idea, you know? He brought so much to the role and he was into it and fun."
Almost a year after his death, the loss of Boseman still hurts both the MCU community and Hollywood at large, and it's been admittedly difficult for those who worked closely with the action hero to map out the future of the story he left behind without him. Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is currently in the works, but director and writer Ryan Coogler shared that it has been a struggle to continue exploring this tale without its leading man. We still don't know how T'Challa's absence will be explained, who will take up the mantle of the Black Panther after him — though Shuri (Letitia Wright) is a rumoured frontrunner as his successor — or what exactly the sequel of the popular film will entail, but even without Boseman, Wakanda will live on.
The same can be said for the MCU as it expands its borders with an action-packed fourth phase. But as the franchise grows, introducing new characters and building on the story arcs of familiar faces, it's also made sure to honour the legacy of Boseman through his final stint as T'Challa in What If...?. He may no longer be with us in this universe, but we can rest assured that his spirit is out there somewhere, racing across the stars.
What If...? is now available for streaming, only on Disney+.