This article contains WHAT IF…? spoilers.
In the second and latest episode of the new animated Marvel Studios series What If…?, a familiar figure appears in an unexpected scenario. “What If…T’Challa Became A Star-Lord?” finds the Wakandan prince not assuming the mantle of king and Black Panther in his home country on Earth, but instead roaming the galaxy as an outlaw with the Ravagers, who accidentally absconded with him instead of Peter Quill when sent to Earth to find the son of the Celestial known as Ego.
The episode is perhaps the best of the first three provided to the press, not least because it features the unmistakable voice of the late Chadwick Boseman, who died nearly a year ago in August 2020 and whose work on the show as T’Challa is the last he did before his shocking and unexpected passing.
“It’s hard to put into words,” says What If…? executive producer Brad Winderbaum about the experience of having Boseman’s voice on the show — like many, even within Marvel, the What If…? creative team were unaware of the cancer that ultimately claimed the actor’s life.
“It was devastating when we found out,” continues Winderbaum. “And then there was almost a second shockwave of realization that he knew when he recorded for us how sick he was, and that he was aware that this was going to be his last performance as T’Challa.”
“What If…T’Challa Became A Star-Lord?” is actually the first of four episodes in which Boseman voiced T’Challa, with the actor playing different versions of the character in all four. “He loved it,” says Winderbaum. “He really just dug in and explored each one of those different variations and loved re-dissecting who this guy was fundamentally, and then who he was based on his new environment.”
“He was one of the earliest, first voice actors to be like, ‘Hey yeah, this sounds cool, I want to be a part of this,’” says director Bryan Andrews. “He liked the idea of playing this riff on the character without the mantle of the king and all this. And it was great. He gave it his all and it was fantastic.”
In the “Star-Lord” episode, T’Challa acquires the Power Stone on Morag just as Peter Quill does in the movie Guardians of the Galaxy. Then he and his mentor/adoptive father Yondu (Michael Rooker) are approached by Nebula (Karen Gillan) about stealing a powerful substance called the Embers of Genesis from Taneleer Tivan, a.k.a. the Collector (Benicio Del Toro). At the same time, T’Challa ponders the life he was forced to leave behind on Earth and what happened to his parents in Wakanda.
Despite joining a band of space pirates instead of growing up to become the leader of Wakanda, T’Challa is still fundamentally a good, benevolent, caring person, with Winderbaum saying that the story focuses on “who someone is in their core versus how they change as the world influences them.”
The exec adds that Boseman’s pitch-perfect portrayal of T’Challa in the episode gave its theme an extra resonance not to mention an emotional heft. “When we were all in the sound mix watching the episode through and it was done, we were all just really moved and crying our eyes out,” Winderbaum says. “We couldn’t believe that he had given us this gift of his performance in that episode.” (The episode is dedicated to Boseman’s memory via a moving tribute card at the end.)
During a press conference held prior to the premiere of What If…?, actor Jeffrey Wright, who voices the show’s narrator, Uatu the Watcher, mentioned that he first met Boseman at San Diego Comic-Con several years ago and that the two had planned to work together at some point.
“In fact, we were going to do Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” recalls Wright. The film, which featured Boseman’s last live-action performance, premiered on Netflix last year after his death. “I was asked to be a part of that and couldn’t do it because I was tied up with another film, unfortunately.”
Wright said that it was a “lovely surprise” to learn that Boseman had voiced T’Challa for What If…? even if the two actors didn’t get to work together directly.
“This being the last performance that we’ll get from him, I find very moving,” continued Wright. “The thing that strikes me most about what he does here and what he’s done with these [Marvel] films is that, obviously, these are films about heroism and all the complications of that. And what we all discovered was that the mythic quality that he brought to these performances kind of paled, in some way, to the mythic quality that was his life…the grace, the dignity, the power.”
Completing “Star-Lord” and the other episodes of What If…? featuring Boseman’s voice became especially meaningful to director Bryan Andrews and the entire Marvel production team, since they represented the actor’s very last work while he was alive.
“We had to make sure nothing [went] wrong with these episodes,” the director says. “Even down to the music and making sure that everything in it can honor what he brought to the table — honor the character, but also honor Chadwick as well.”
What If…? is streaming on Disney+, with new episodes premiering every Wednesday.