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Ryan Coogler talks Black Panther sequel 'Wakanda Forever'

ERIC DEGGANS, HOST:

And finally today, how does a family, let alone a nation, carry on in the face of profound loss? That's one of the questions explored in the latest installment of the "Black Panther" film franchise, "Wakanda Forever." In it, the audience explores the dark corners of grief through each of its characters following the death of T'Challa, Wakanda's king, who was also the superhero protector Black Panther. Watching on screen, you can't help but think of Chadwick Boseman, star of the first "Black Panther" movie, who died of cancer in 2020 before production began on the sequel. But as T'challa's family navigates this fresh reality, a new character emerges from the water, demanding help from Wakanda and resisting the Western world.

The film has clearly touched a chord with audiences. It's already earned more than $300 million in the U.S. and is expected to top the Thanksgiving weekend box office. So we wanted to talk with director and co-writer Ryan Coogler. He says the film, although about grief, shows the sort of rebirth that occurs in the face of insurmountable loss. And he began by telling me what it was like to reimagine the film's story, which had already been written before Boseman died.

RYAN COOGLER: It was really complicated. It was difficult technically, because Joe and I had a lot of work to do to figure out what this new movie would be without him and without the character. But it was also complicated because me and everybody involved were navigating our own emotional journey, how to deal with losing our friend. So it was admittedly like the most difficult professional thing I've ever done and probably the most difficult personally as well.

DEGGANS: You know, it's obvious when you watch it. The film really emerges as a tribute to Chadwick, and it also gives the audience space to mourn him while they're watching the film. And I was wondering, was it possible that hitting on that idea was the thing that you needed to sort of tell you how to retell this story?

COOGLER: Yeah, absolutely. You know, we were trying to tell a story from the perspective of the main characters, and we thought that by doing that, if we had the ability to connect with audiences, maybe audiences would open up to their feelings, you know, towards the character or towards the performer but also, you know, more than anything, towards their own experiences with grief personally.

DEGGANS: Yeah. And I definitely want to talk with you about some of the other themes that the film deals with. But first, man, I got to talk about Namor - or Namor.

COOGLER: Yeah.

DEGGANS: However it's said (ph). Every character says it differently, it feels like, in the film - but that's the subnarrator. Now, I always loved this character. I'm a comic book geek, and this character, though, was white in the comic books. But you gave him a Mayan Mesoamerican heritage in the film. Now, how did that idea come up, and were you worried about getting the backlash that we've seen toward other films and TV shows that cast people of color as characters that fans previously saw as white people?

COOGLER: It's interesting being a comic book fan that - like, Namor was always kind of like, ethnically ambiguous in many ways to me. Like, when I would read, and he was always drawn having this dark hair, kind of like interesting eyebrows. And he was always kind of treated differently from everybody else. You know, maybe it was because he had these wings on his ankles, and he came from the ocean. But we felt like it makes sense that he wouldn't be white. And our film was in conversation with a lot of other representations of underwater kingdoms. I mean, you had "Aquaman" a few years ago. You had like, a lot of stories about Atlantis and character of the Deep in the Amazon series...

DEGGANS: "The Boys."

COOGLER: ...That's on right now, "The Boys." You know, so you got a lot of representation of characters like this. We wanted ours to be different. With the "Black Panther" films, there's an expectation I think the audience has a level of cultural specificity, of respectful execution of those things, and that kind of took us to doing something different and looking to other myths and stories that existed outside of the Greco-Roman concept of Atlantis, you know, Plato's Atlantis. And for us, once we were able to break free of that, you know, it took us to the Americas and specifically Mesoamerica. And that was where we found these stories of Maya civilization and these pre-Columbian civilizations and what happened to them when the Spanish landed here. And that opened up a pretty clear path for us in terms of Talokan.

DEGGANS: That amazing. And I'm also glad you sort of stuck with the wings on his ankles, even though I was surprised that you did that.

COOGLER: Absolutely. Did you think we wouldn't have it?

DEGGANS: I thought you would. I thought you might not because I didn't know what it would look like. But it looks great in the film. You guys pulled it off.

COOGLER: Oh, thank you.

DEGGANS: So - but...

COOGLER: Yeah, we wanted to keep it true to the source for the comic book fans out there.

DEGGANS: Yeah. Well, you know, we spent a lot of time talking about Namor, but this film does feel very female centered.

COOGLER: Yeah.

DEGGANS: But you and your screenwriting partner, Joe Robert Cole, you're not female.

COOGLER: Right.

DEGGANS: So I'm wondering, how did you get the idea to center so much of the film on the female characters? And did you have any concerns about being two guys writing a very female-centered movie?

COOGLER: That's a great question, man. I think that for us, the film started out - you know, it was T'Challa's movie, you know, before Chadwick passed. The first "Black Panther" has a lot of characters that are female, but it also - it could be described as a movie about two guys trying to sort out their daddy issues in many ways. You know what I mean?

DEGGANS: Exactly.

COOGLER: You know, obviously, like, on the surface, we felt very equipped to write those movies. And this one turned into something else. You know, it wasn't anybody's fault. It was a tragic thing that happened. And what we were doing, where we were just trying to figure out a way forward, you know, that we could all get behind - we built a story around the characters that were left. And the characters that were left just happened to be these women. And they were women that we knew well from writing them before, but, you know, we wanted to show them in a time of transition. And then it became very clear to us that we were making a film about a Black mother and Black daughter. And we got excited about that, this idea of making a big, four-quadrant superhero film about a mom and a daughter.

You know, how often do you get that opportunity, right? And so through the process of executing it, we would realize like, oh, yeah, this scene is two women talking. This scene is two women talking. This thing is a woman fighting a [expletive]. You know? Like, we got to that point where we were really far down the road, and we realized that what was happening. And I think if we had known that earlier going in, we might have gotten more intimidated, you know?

DEGGANS: Right.

COOGLER: [Expletive] - we were just writing characters, man. You know, that was it.

DEGGANS: So "Black Panther" movies are always more than just a film. I mean, they are a movement and a symbol for so many fans. And I know that creates pressure for you. And I wonder, do you worry at all about fans placing so much meaning on what, you know, as you said, is ultimately a big-budget studio movie that's supposed to entertain people?

COOGLER: I take it as like, a sign of great respect that fans would place these kind of expectations on us. It means a lot. Like, we don't try to shake off those expectations. Look, our No. 1 job is to make a movie, right? And to make a movie that functions - make a movie that works for people. You know what I mean? Obviously, we wanted the film to be financially successful because that means that, you know, moving forward, you know, possibly we can make more and even bigger than that is other films like this can be made. You know what I mean? Like, the financial success of these types of movies dispels a lot of lies that we're told about films, about people like these characters.

But the idea that people would expect more than just entertainment from these movies, man, I think that's brilliant. You know? Like, what that means is that we delivered on being more than just entertainment on the first one, and people had that expectation of us on this one. And we want to think about that as well. Like, we're not just thinking about blowing things up. We're thinking about what type of conversations can we spark amongst the audience? What kind of things can this affect in terms of conversations around our themes? So that doesn't worry me. It can add a little bit of extra stress, I guess, but it's stress that's well welcome.

DEGGANS: That was writer and director Ryan Coogler. His latest film, "Wakanda Forever," is the latest movie in the "Black Panther" franchise. It's out now in theaters. Ryan Coogler, thank you so much for joining us.

COOGLER: And thank you, sir. We appreciate you, man.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LIFT ME UP")

RIHANNA: (Singing) Burning in a hopeless dream. Hold me when you go to sleep. Keep me in the warmth of your love when you depart. Keep me safe, safe and sound. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.