What If…? S1E2: “What if T’Challa Became a Star Lord?”— A Love Letter to Chadwick Boseman

T'Challa (Chadwick Boseman) standing at the center of a group of characters looking forward with a black background
Courtesy of Disney+

What If…?  S1E2 “What if T’Challa Became a Star Lord?” picks up steam from Episode 1. Whereas that plot was a fairly straightforward switch of Peggy Carter into the role played by Steve Rogers in Captain America: The First Avenger, S1E2 makes the ripple effects of the character switch go much deeper. T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) doesn’t just get kidnapped by the Ravagers and live the same sort of life Peter Quill did. Instead, his presence in the greater cosmic part of the Marvel universe generates a goodness that makes everything different. The places that T’Challa goes are automatically improved by his kindness, charm, and incredible goodwill. Which is also how every person who worked with Chadwick Boseman in person seems to describe the experience. 

Boseman’s death from colon cancer came as a shock to everyone. He was too young, too much a part of our lives, with too much of a future in front of him to lose so soon. It was also the case that Boseman knew about his illness for quite some time and had been measuring his acting choices by how much he could use them to establish his legacy. Either because of that or because of his greater sense of responsibility to the world, he had always made it a point to take roles as important and esteemed Black characters.

Boseman’s inherent likeability and charisma coupled with his choice to play these Black heroes and to bring his own sense of goodness to them created a unique filmography. The characters he played, be they real world figures like Jackie Robinson or Thurgood Marshall, or jazz trumpeters in August Wilson works, or the fictional King T’Challa of Wakanda have had a real impact on people throughout the world.

By playing T’Challa, Boseman was able to bring to life a very specific kind of Black superhero, and he revelled in it. Every person he interacted with, every child who saw him salute “Wakanda Forever ”, and all of his co-stars and crew have had one reaction to the experience: Chadwick Boseman was a singular human being. And so it makes sense that in this series, his last performances were for What If…?—the actor and the character are being given a celebratory sendoff that shows just how special this person was. Boseman’s untimely death is a tragedy for many reasons, but in part it is because we won’t get any more of these singular performances, or have such a light in the world anymore. It also has sent the Marvel team scrambling as they try to figure out what they will do to fill the empty space at the center of the Black Panther franchise.

T'Challa (Chadwick Boseman) standing in front of a star giving a wink and saluting
Photo courtesy of Disney+

That’s where What If…? S1E2, “What if T’Challa Became a Star Lord?” arrives in the narrative. The premise of the “what if” concept not only allows us to imagine a world in which Boseman is still alive, because by nature of the concept, the viewer is put into a mindset of endless possibility. It allows us to imagine what the world would be like if different choices were made, if things had turned out differently for any sort of reason.

The real question at the heart of the “what if” narratives is not limited to science fiction or comic book tropes. Every time we watch a show like this, or Loki, or anything to do with alternate realities or time travel, the “what if” on our minds is “what if things could be different in the real world?” In this case, it allows us to revel in the talents and kindness of Chadwick Boseman and to imagine all the good he did, and could have done with different circumstances. To do this What If…? S1E2  takes the hero to the funhouse cosmos of Guardians of the Galaxy.

By accidentally kidnapping T’Challa instead of Peter Quill, the Ravagers have basically created the kindest and most loving timeline. T’Challa is instilled with an innate goodness that radiates from him to everyone he meets. By being out of Wakanda, and off of earth, he has an opportunity to meet many people (beings?) and change their lives for the better. Instead of the eminently selfish life that Peter Quill lived before the events of the first Guardians movie, T’Challa spent his time learning and helping others to see the error of their ways, and so everyone becomes quite different than they had been in the prime timeline. Key among the changed characters being Thanos and Nebula.

I’m not sure that the kinder, gentler, slightly less genocidal Thanos we get here will be a hit for everyone, but I have never loved the character more. Josh Brolin returns to voice the Mad Titan and gives his growly delivery just the slightest uptick of joy. All of this because T’Challa convinced him his plan to eliminate half of all life was stupid, and it was. A digression here for my Thanos-heads who may be reading this: Thanos was wrong. Thanos’s plan was evil. It was neither smart nor well intentioned. He was a cruel, genocidal, madman(titan) and he got what he deserved. 

As T’Challa no doubt informed him with way more grace and humility than any human should possess, getting rid of half of all life in no way solves any resource issues. At BEST it delays them a few millennia. The Thanos we get here is not exactly heroic, like all the Ravagers and the Guardians, he is still a little grey, but he definitely is not the same Titan who passes judgement on half of all life. Nor does he spend What If…? S1E2 as the tortuous tormentor of Nebula (Karen Gillan).

Nebula (Karen Gillan) with long blonde hair and a sparkly dress, stands holding a drink in front of a neon background
Courtesy of Disney+

The Nebula of this universe is amazing. Far from the brooding, inhibited, unhinged character we know, this version is funny, sexy, and amazing. She enters as a classic “femme fatale”, with long blond hair flowing over her one cybernetic eye (so we know that before T’Challa arrived, Thanos was as terrible as in the main timeline). Nebula and T’Challa have a palpable flirtatiousness that pops up throughout the episode, and both Boseman and Gillan are at their best and most charming when the characters lean into this chemistry. I mean, she calls T’Challa “ChaCha”; there is just something intimate about that. Nebula sets up the main plot by enlisting the help of T’Challa and the Ravagers in order to steal some magic plant seeds that could end hunger in the universe. 

This sets off an Ocean’s Eleven style caper plot as they try to steal these cosmic seeds from The Collector (Benecio Del Toro). It turns out that not everything in this version of the universe is better, as (probably in part because of key figures like Thanos being out of his way) The Collector is shown to be far more powerful and insidious than previously thought. He has somehow collected such things as Captain America’s shield, Mjolinor, and Hela’s headgear, and he winds up using them all in an attempt to stop T’Challa and Nebula’s plan. It doesn’t work and the heroes prevail, but the point of What If…? S1E2 was not the plot, it was getting all the actors back together and letting Chadwick Boseman work his magic.

All of the returning actors did amazing things with these versions of the characters. Michael Rooker’s Yondu was able to show his fatherly affection for Star Lord throughout the time, as T’Challa brought out the good in him much earlier than Quill had done. The fact that The Collector was literally keeping sentient beings in cages was also addressed. Instead of being shunted aside as a joke, Carina (Ophelia Lovibond), The Collector’s Kylorian slave, actually manages to help overpower him, and in the end lead the rebellion that will take him down entirely.

Carina, like Kraglin (Sean Gunn), Taserface (Chris Sullivan), Korath (Djimon Hounsou), and so many others all reprise their roles in What If…? S1E2. In fact, the only major actors not to return to voice their characters are Dave Bautista and Chris Pratt. Bautista claims he was never even asked, whereas no one seems to know what happened with Pratt. It wasn’t particularly noticeable within the show, but with everyone else returning, it felt odd to have two of the most prominent members of the Guardians being voiced by someone else.

In the end of What If…? S1E2 T’Challa returns to Wakanda, with Yondu and the rest of the team in tow, and King T’Chaka welcomes him back to his homeland with open arms. Despite the changes, T’Challa is a part of Wakanda and his presence there will be essential too. But by having been a Star Lord, T’Challa has made everything better, because it was kinder. Because the universe was able to interact with the greatness of T’Challa (the man, not the Black Panther) and he brought his goodness to them and gave them all he had for as long as he could.

And so it is also true for us. There will probably never be another actor like Chadwick Boseman, so determined to hold himself up as a standard and role model. But through the power of “what if” we can imagine the endless worlds where he is still living. While we live in the world where his legacy will last forever.

white text on a black background "Dedicated to our friend, our inspiration, and our hero, Chadwick Boseman"
Courtesy of Disney+

Written by Clay Dockery

Clay Dockery is an actor, author, and impresario extraordinaire. They are the co-editor of Why I Geek: An Anthology of Fandom Origin Stories and was the co-head organizer and creative director of MISTI-Con, Coal Hill Con, and The West Wing Weekend fandom conventions. They live in New York City with their girlfriend and their two chonky cats.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *