Over the past 30 years, Marvel's risen meteorically. The company's gone from pawning off its most lucrative superheroes to keep the lights on to hedging untold millions on D-list characters even the most obsessive fans barely remember. And now that Black Widow's finally hitting theaters, Cracked's looking at the past (and future) of the studio that revolutionized the modern superhero narrative. Check out parts one, two, and three.

We're about to enter the much-ballyhooed "Phase 4" of Marvel movies -- presumably, the last of the numbered phases before we enter Phase: Legacy, then Phase: Ghost Protocol, and eventually Phase: The Crimes of Grindelwald. And while a lot of fans are excited about seeing movies about new superheroes like Shang-Chi and The Eternals, people are also hyped for the return of familiar characters like Ant-Man, Captain Marvel, and the fresh-faced young Hawkeye, who will likely force Jeremy Renner back into the "performing impromptu roadside rock concerts about the awesomeness of the Jeeps" industry.

But what would have likely been the most-anticipated of upcoming Marvel sequels has obviously been marred by tragedy; Black Panther star Chadwick Boseman passed away from colon cancer on August 28, 2020, at the infuriatingly young age of 43. The news was obviously heartbreaking for fans, but next to the chasm of unimaginable grief his family and friends had to endure, talking about any movie feels abjectly trivial. At the same time, there's no denying the cultural loss that will be felt by his passing. Not just because of his work in a popular superhero franchise, but think of all the future performances robbed from the world of film. Watching recent movies like Da 5 Bloods and his Oscar-nominated (and Golden Globe-winning) work in Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, it's painfully clear that Boseman was an all-time great who was just getting started.

As for the role Boseman is most known for, no one is totally sure what the future of Black Panther will look like. It never seemed as though Marvel was going to pack up this franchise and move on because A) they like money, and B) less cynically, Black Panther means a whole lot to a whole lot of people. While retiring, say, Ant-Man wouldn't be a big deal, Black Panther was widely heralded as a celebration of Black excellence (though also weirdly, a celebration of the CIA) and is arguably essential to the landscape of Hollywood blockbusters. So what to do? Marvel quickly announced that they wouldn't recast the role of T'Challa out of respect for Boseman, but that decision hasn't been without controversy. Some fans have since petitioned Marvel to do the opposite, out of fears that the T'Challa character will be killed off, which they claim will minimize his legacy.

More likely, it seems like the follow-up to Black Panther will promote an existing cast member; after all, throughout the history of comics, lots of different characters have taken up the Black Panther mantle, including Shuri, who "became Black Panther when T'Challa was gravely ill." In terms of the movies, it seemed like having Shuri step into her brother's shoes was the way to go, and early reports claimed that Shuri would have a more "prominent role" in the sequel. 

But even that scenario wouldn't be without controversy. Soon after rumors surfaced that she might take over the Black Panther franchise, actress Letitia Wright posted an anti-vaxxer conspiracy theory video on social media -- one that also questioned the existence of climate change and featured "transphobic comments." Wright's response to the ensuing public backlash was one of defensiveness, posting, "if you don't conform to popular opinions but ask questions and think for yourself….you get canceled," before eventually deleting her Twitter and Instagram accounts altogether. 

According to online bookies, Shuri still has the best odds to become the new Black Panther -- and yes, apparently superhero casting is a thing you can place bets on, and good lord, wouldn't it be embarrassing to have had your thumbs broken because you went full Uncut Gems on John Krasinski playing Captain America? But we could also see Disney sidelining Wright due to her comments since now's not a great time to be in the anti-vaccine business. So who else could step into the Wakandan spotlight? In some ways, the filmmakers shot themselves in the foot by killing off arguably the most interesting character in the first movie. Despite the fact that he very clearly died at the end of Black Panther --

-- people keep asking Michael B. Jordan if Killmonger will return for the sequel, which, barring a Star Wars-esque reveal that he was cloned offscreen between movies by a random wizard cult, seems pretty unlikely. But, impressively, the Black Panther franchise has a deep bench of acclaimed actors who are already part of the cast -- like, if the next movie is just two hours of Winston Duke's M'Baku, sign us the hell up. Or why not let Nakia become the next Black Panther, which would make for an interesting character arc. Not to mention the fact that Lupita Nyong'o is indisputably one of the best actors working today. While the cast is still keeping the details to themselves, according to Nyong'o, director Ryan Coogler's plan for the direction of the sequel is, "So respectful of the loss we've all experienced as a cast and as a world. So it feels spiritually and emotionally correct to do this."

Obviously, there's no clear path for the best way to handle this terrible situation, but we can point to one concrete example of how not to go forward with a film franchise following the tragic death of its star. And it involves a movie series that also happens to be named after a color-coded panther …

The filmmakers behind Black Panther could probably just look at every creative decision that went into continuing the Pink Panther series following the death of Peter Sellers and just do the exact goddamn opposite. After Sellers, who starred as the bumbling Inspector Clouseau, died of a heart attack, the movies continued with Trail of the Pink Panther, a barely coherent patchwork of outtakes and deleted scenes featuring the late Sellers -- and featuring a title sequence, oddly enough, by Marvel Productions.

While the film was framed as a tribute to Sellers, it felt more like the cinematic equivalent of graverobbing. Sellers' widow rejected director Blake Edwards' pitch for the movie, so he just did it anyway -- but she ended up successfully suing the filmmakers and was awarded $1 million for insulting her husband's memory and using his likeness without permission. So Edwards and company followed that trainwreck up with … some kind of monorail-wreck, or maybe even a space shuttle-wreck. Curse of the Pink Panther introduced an entirely new clumsy detective character who was both terrible and immediately forgettable. We later got the '90s Roberto Benigni reboot and the remake with Steve Martin, none of which were great. 

Thankfully, Marvel has already seemingly proven themselves to be more respectful to Boseman's memory, with producers stating that he won't appear in the sequel as some kind of CGI abomination. And, as evidenced by the Pink Panther fiasco, you can't just bring in some rando to replace a beloved character, hence why it makes more sense to draw from the talents of existing cast members whose characters already have a place in the story. But the biggest clue to where these movies are headed thematically might be the film's title: Black Panther: Wakanda Forever. Likely what we're going to see is a pivot towards focusing on the collective community of Wakanda, rather than just one lone hero. It makes sense, especially since Coogler is also developing a Wakanda-based streaming series for Disney+ and, notably, The Dora Milaje played a prominent role in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier.

Hopefully, whatever happens, it won't involve Tom Hardy showing up with the Venom symbiote.

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Top Image: Marvel Studios

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