Chadwick Boseman's posthumous 'What If...?' appearance brings 'solemnity' to Marvel series

Brian Truitt

Watching this week’s episode of Marvel’s “What If…?” was bittersweet for Chris Sullivan.

The “This Is Us” actor was able to voice his beloved “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” character Taserface in the Disney+ animated series, and the newest chapter also features the late Chadwick Boseman reprising his fan-favorite role as T’Challa. Instead of protecting Wakanda as Black Panther in this version of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, however, he’s helping a bunch of space outlaws become better men. 

“First of all, the ability to be in any way related to T’Challa and Chadwick Boseman is an incredible honor,” Sullivan says. “There was a lot of feelings that came up hearing him and seeing him even in animated form. To see the love he was able to spread to Taserface (and) to also soften the edges on Yondu and all of those guys as well is a fun space to explore.”

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T'Challa (voiced by Chadwick Boseman, right) smacks the Collector in the new episode of Marvel's "What If...?"

This week's second episode (streaming now) of “What If…?,” which reimagines key characters and story lines in the MCU, posits what would have happened if T’Challa, aka Black Panther, had been taken to space as a kid by Yondu (Michael Rooker) and his Ravagers gang and become Star-Lord instead of Peter Quill (played by Chris Pratt in the "Guardians" movies).

While Quill is quite the cosmic rogue in the movies, Boseman’s version of Star-Lord is a more charismatic, noble sort who brings out the good in everybody, even among the most notorious MCU baddies, but still gets embroiled in an epic heist alongside Yondu and Nebula (Karen Gillan).

“He really approached the material as seriously and as soulfully as I imagine he approached any of his work,” says executive producer Brad Winderbaum. Boseman recorded multiple versions of T'Challa for “What If…?” over the course of the first season “and each one was just a nuanced performance based on a lot of deep thought you could tell from his part and how we wanted to portray the character.

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Taserface (Chris Sullivan, center right) and the Ravagers take Rocket and Groot prisoner in "Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2."

“It was such a devastating blow to find out about his passing and it was frankly so humbling to know that he spent any time working with us during that period” when Boseman battled colon cancer.

Sullivan never ran into Boseman at Marvel movie premieres or functions, but does remember sitting across from him on a flight. "It was a red eye, so there wasn't a lot of chumming around. But man, he was one of my favorite actors,” Sullivan says. “I don’t think Black Panther had come out at that point. And even still, to try and introduce yourself to Black Panther as Taserface, you let the man enjoy his flight.”

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Getting to play Taserface again was “extremely exciting and what I was hoping for,” but also allowed Sullivan to give the villain “some dimension,” he says. “When your character is involved in an explosion in the Marvel universe, you never know. There's an opportunity, you don't see him dead. I was always wondering if he'd come back around and this is the chance to do that.”

And for Sullivan, there’s a thoughtful “beauty” to the “What If…?” concept. “Overall as I watched the episode, the overarching theme for me was, yeah, we all wish things could have gone differently in our lives,” he says. “We all wish Chadwick Boseman was around to continue to play Black Panther. At the end of it, there was a solemnity that I just didn't expect. ‘What if?’ is a question that we ask ourselves about a lot of things.”