'Black Panther' editor and VFX crew unpack 'Wakanda Forever' secrets, including fabled 4-hour cut
"There were big parts that we we had to take out before anyone else saw the movie."
At 2 hours and 41 minutes, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is the longest movie of Phase 4 and the second-longest movie of the entire MCU just after Avengers: Endgame. This expansive runtime was absolutely necessary, given how the sequel (directed by Ryan Coogler, who co-wrote the screenplay with Joe Robert Cole) needed the extra legroom to properly address the untimely passing of actor Chadwick Boseman, who was set to reprise the role of King T'Challa he made so iconic before dying of Stage IV colon cancer in 2020.
"He was our center, our core, our focus on everything," returning editor Michael P. Shawver tells SYFY WIRE over Zoom. "People say this was an impossible movie. I know there have been some headlines about that, but we never saw it as that. We never let ourselves believe that we couldn't do it. There's a difference between fear and caution — and I think we were we were very cautious about everything that we did and were very intentional. That was sort of the mantra that we went by."
He continues: "In a weird way, we all felt like we had Chadwick’s hand on our shoulder. There’s stuff in this movie where I wasn't sure what I was gonna do, and I did it and it worked. A lot of hard things happened on this movie, but it all found its way to the end."
VFX Editor Anedra Edwards (WandaVision) seconds that motion, explaining how the irregular, yet welcome, decision to base all the different departments on one floor amidst post-production led to fluid communication and a smoother creative process. "Ryan would just knock on the door and he's like, ‘We're finished with this reel! We got it!’ It was an excitement to keep everyone going," she says.
***WARNING! The following contains major spoilers for the film!***
Wakanda Forever wastes no time in tackling its heavy subject matter. The very first scene opens on a frantic Princess Shuri (Letitia Wright), desperately trying to save her brother's life by attempting to synthesize the Heart-Shaped Herb Killmonger wiped out in the first movie. Her efforts are sadly in vain when Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett) enters the room to announce that the king has passed.
"We wanted to give people a movie about grief and who you are when when something gets taken away from you that abruptly and that harshly," adds Shawver, who worked alongside co-editors Kelley Dixon (The Falcon and the Winter Soldier) and Jennifer Lame (Tenet). "I don't know how many movies have that arc, especially with a main character who's supposed to be the superhero and who's supposed to do all the right things, but you see her going down a path that is rageful and vengeful and not what her brother would have done."
King T'Challa receives a proper Wakandan funeral before the story jumps a year into the future, where an embattled Ramonda tirelessly beats back other world powers looking to get their hands on Vibranium.
With the queen adamantly refusing to share her nation's precious metal, lest it be used for malicious purposes, the U.S. government starts digging at the bottom of the ocean, effectively threatening the sovereignty of the Namor the Sub-Mariner (Tenoch Huerta) and his underwater kingdom of Talokan. The introduction of Namor (a regular foe of Wakanda in the comics) posed a unique challenge for the production's visual effects artists, who needed to figure out how to believably sell a dude with wings on his ankles.
"Any caped superheroes who’s flying around, you center that movement, leading with the chest, but here, everything is based around his ankles and his feet," explains Hanzhi Tang, a VFX supervisor at Digital Domain. "So he has more athletic movements and I think a lot of reference was either ice hockey or football in the way that he changes direction. It comes from the waist, the way he pushes himself against the air and steps through the air."
Blaming Wakanda for the encroaching threat, Namor demands that Ramonda bring him the scientist who designed the high-pressure drill used by the Americans. That scientist turns out to be Riri Williams (Dominique Thorne), a brilliant MIT student with a passion for Stark-related technology. Shuri and Dora Milaje general Okoye (Danai Gurira) make their way to Boston in an effort to protect Riri from Namor's wrath. Things don't go exactly to plan when the FBI arrives, prompting Ms. Williams to take flight in an early iteration of the Ironheart suit.
"I worked a lot with our second unit VFX supervisor, Michael Ralla, who filmed a lot of those aerials along with our camera team up in Boston," says Edwards. "To be able to do a lot of visual effects for a city that I've technically never visited... but now I've seen it 30,000 and 50,000 feet in the air. Being able to play around with that material and to work with racing drones, which can just move incredibly fast in the air ... was really fun."
Riri later gets a juiced-up version of the Ironheart armor during the climactic ocean battle between Wakanda and the Talokanil. "It has a different look to mechs and robotic costumes from the rest of the MCU," Tang reveals. "It’s kind of a shinier, glossier, sleek-looking suit."
Of course, it's already been confirmed that Williams will return in her own Disney+ series, on which Coogler is an executive producer. "In the movie, [Riri] does have to leave that suit behind, which I think opens the door to a redesign for the Disney+ show," Tang muses. "I don't know which way they're gonna go with that."
"I actually have no idea of anything about that show and I'm happy because sometimes I do need to enjoy things for the first time as a fan," echoes Shawver. "But the little details were like, ‘Okay, well, this person is going to be here. Do we mention them? Do we put them here? Do we plant them here?’ Not disrupting our story, but doing things that the fans who really consume everything — which I'm one of them — [can pick up on later]. It's breadcrumbed."
For that final battle, Digital Domain looked at footage of (fittingly named) Ironman Triathalon competitions for the Talokanil warriors who overwhelm the Wakandan Sea Leopard. "You can use that as a reference for everyone’s kicking and splashing overlaid over each other and what that water surface looks like. The amount of churn and whitewater that generates," Tang says. Since the stunt performers scaling the side of the vessel were constantly being sprayed down with water, "they had to wear [special] footwear" as an anti-slipping precaution. "They are supposed to be barefooted, and we ended up having to paint out shoes through multiple layers of crowds."
"As a visual effects editor, sometimes you're deciding what original plate photography will be used from those extras to help enhance the battles," Edwards continues. "It's a lot of stuff, especially on the ship. You've got a mixture of original photography [and] you've got a mixture of completely CG characters."
On a nearby beach, Shuri (having recently taken on the mantle of Black Panther) faces off with Namor. Per Tang, this showdown was filmed at a sand quarry half an hour outside of Atlanta, with the fighting undertaken by stunt doubles. Armed with that footage, the VFX team then used "a mixture of different techniques" to insert Wright and Huerta into the sequence via head and/or full body replacements.
"In a regular costume, you could probably blend around the neck and replace the head or something. Since ... Namor’s just wearing the shorts and the jewelry around his neck, it's very difficult to find places that you can hide the blend."
In addition, Shuri's movements as Black Panther needed to be different from her brother's, owing to the fact that she never planned on being a warrior. "It's definitely more [of a] fluid motion and a little bit more catlike the way she jumps through some of the stunts," Tang explains. "It's not as heavy as I think we would have done it if it was T’Challa."
"When we're figuring out these action scenes, we get to play with action figures. I got a Riri one and I got Namor one and I got a Shuri one," Shawver says. "And I'm like, ‘Okay, well, what if they jump this way? And Ryan’s like, ‘No, no — what if she does this?’ So we're just grown people playing with toys and reading comic books. To have that infused into a very pressure-filled, deadline-filled, world-is-watching-you needs and wants to see what it is, that makes it lighter."
While many MCU viewers expected a post-credits scene with Doctor Doom, Wakanda Forever appropriately eschews set-up for future projects with a final tribute to King T'Challa in a touching mid-credits scene, which reveals that Boseman's character secretly sired a son with Nakia (Lupita Nyong'o). His legacy lives on! According to Shawver, this was originally part of the theatrical ending where Shuri burns her funeral garments on a Haitian beach and reflects on her brother. "We cleared it out, so Shuri could have her arc and her story, because that's really what it was about."
The editor lets slips that an early cut of the film had a runtime of four-and-a-half hours. "There were big parts that we we had to take out before anyone else saw the movie," he says. A good chunk of that was spent underwater, allowing Shuri and Riri to bond more. "They're both very unique in terms [of them being] two of the most brilliant minds in the MCU and having them relate was important," Shawver adds. "But the movie needed to move, the pacing needed to move, we needed to get [Shuri] back to her mom. We ended up just figuring out later that, ‘Let’s incorporate [Riri] more into the plan of capturing Namor.’"
That lengthier edit also contained an axed scene in which a recently-fired Okoye attempts to go rogue and rescue Shuri, but finds herself confronted by the other members of the Dora Milaje.
"I feel okay talking about the scene because there's a shot the first trailer from it, where Okoye has her spear up and the Dora put their spears up to her. I won't say what happens in case [it's part of the] deleted scenes [on the home release], but it was really cool. It was Wakanda at night, you saw the cityscape late at night, you saw this former general facing off against her sisters."
Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is now playing in theaters.
In the mood for more epic sci-fi? Jordan Peele's Nope is now streaming on Peacock.