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An injury to Letitia Wright just tossed a vibranium-plated wrench into Disney’s return to Wakanda.
Marvel Studios recently announced it’s shutting down production on Black Panther: Wakanda Forever because of an undisclosed injury sustained by its 28-year-old British star in September. Wright, who is slated to take up the Black Panther mantle after Chadwick Boseman’s tragic passing, has been released from the hospital and, according to her representatives, is “recovering in London… and looking forward to returning to work in early 2022.” The only problem with this plan is we’re still living in a global pandemic where international travel remains a dicey proposition. To mitigate the spread, the CDC enacted a new rule earlier this week requiring all non-immigrant, non-citizens flying to the U.S. to show proof of full vaccination before boarding, which makes the reports (which she’s denied) of Wright was planting anti-vax ideas on set seem incredibly awkward.
Not only does the new rule, Wright’s immigration and vaccination statuses, and injury all congeal into a messy sludge for Disney in terms of scheduling but it also presents a host of more meta issues for the Black Panther imprint. The Mickey Mouse Mediaship has already announced delays for some of its most highly anticipated Phase Four films, including Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, The Marvels, Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania, and Thor: Love and Thunder. At the time of the injury, it seemed production could continue but now, with most of the non-Shuri scenes already in the can and Wright on the shelf, it’s hard to imagine the Black Panther sequel, which was supposed to be released in November 2022, won’t suffer the same fate. But even more so, Wright’s very public questioning of the vaccine’s efficacy also casts a contradictory cloud over one of the film’s most important endeavors: honoring the life of its previous king.
Wright’s vaccine skepticism kicked off last year when she shared a now-deleted controversial video of the YouTube show On the Table where the host provided fact-free questioning of the COVID vaccines’ ingredients, doubted the reality of climate change, and shared a number of transphobic ideas. Tweeting the video with a prayer hands emoji led to a number of very loud responses from the Twitterverse, to which Wright provided the age-old thought-leader reaction: “if you don’t conform to popular opinions. But ask questions and think for yourself...you get cancelled,” with a laughing-face emoji thrown in for good measure.
The shit truly hit the fan last month when reports revealing Wright’s anti-vax evangelizing came to light. In a very strange statement in response to those allegations, Wright said that “anyone who knows me or has worked with me, knows that I work incredibly hard at my craft and my main focus is always to do work that’s impactful and inspiring.” Not totally sure what her work ethic has to do with spreading misinformation but it’s important to note, as CBR and others did at the time, that Wright “didn’t actually deny that she expressed anti-vaccine sentiment… nor did she mention COVID-19 (either directly or indirectly) in her post.” A piece this week in The Hollywood Reporter alleged that Wright “is not vaccinated, sources say.”
Since Boseman’s death last year, Disney and Hollywood at large have honored his work and life through various forms of tribute. They redesigned Marvel Studios’ intro sequence on Disney+, aired a Robin Roberts-hosted tribute special on ABC, and developed a mural of Boseman’s image in Disneyland’s shopping district. One of Disney’s most recent TV endeavors, Marvel’s What If...?, also featured Boseman’s voice and likeness in his final screen performance.
On the comics side, last September saw a flood of memorials including special issues with covers drawn by Black Panther artist Brian Stelfreeze and a letter by Black Panther writer Ta-Nehisi Coates, both of whom revitalized the character in 2018 with a new series. Last January’s 41st issue of Avengers by Jason Aaron featured a Wakandan helicarrier called the Boseman that can be seen above an ocean of fire seeking to assist Earth’s Mightiest Heroes in evacuations and reconnaissance. Boseman’s spiritual presence has been felt all over both the Marvel Universe and our own.
While Disney must face the difficulty of yet again shaking up the release schedule, the company will also have to do some PR work to help its audience dissociate Shuri from reality. After all, the lines between that reality and fiction have all but collapsed—a fact that Disney had to acknowledge in order to keep the show going. But now that the show has stopped, Shuri’s character and the woman that plays her present a difficult misalignment. Wright, if she is unvaccinated, does pose a risk to the cast and crew, especially the elderly or infirm. But how can Disney rightly promote this character and Wright to greater prominence when her status would have posed a direct threat to its immunocompromised king, who shot Black Panther while battling cancer? How can Disney claim to honor his legacy by doing so? The tragic irony of all this isn’t that Shuri is the brightest scientific mind of the MCU, it’s that had her predecessor lived long enough to see a sequel, Wright, if these reports are true, could’ve presented a potentially grave danger to him. Getting vaccinated isn’t just about protecting your own health but the health of those around you.
Prior to Wright’s questions about the vaccine becoming public, Marvel had an easy win within the scope of the Representation Industrial Complex. Black Panther would be earned by a Black woman, meaning that Wright would be carrying these films into the next phase. But diversity is proving to not be so simple. While Twitter might suggest that anyone from Marsai Martin to Keke Palmer could step into the role and perform it rather well, there’s absolutely no way it wouldn’t threaten Black Panther 2’s continuity and release date—not to mention they would have to honor contractual obligations to Wright. Don’t hold your breath for Disney cutting their losses just yet, though there has been relative radio silence with regard to the shitstorm Wright’s comments have kicked up. Outside of Don Cheadle’s now-deleted tweets in support of her—without actually watching the video she posted, I might add— the rest of the cast has been mighty quiet as the fiasco trudges on. Wright, tellingly, isn’t a Chris Pratt, whose co-stars threw on their capes and leapt to his defense last year after facing backlash over his political views. On the flip side, none of her colleagues have outwardly denounced her either, which means they might be cool with how everything’s gone down. Though they might show Wright some love and light in the group chat, one thing is certain: no one is coming to save her.