Black Panther: Wakanda Forever's Ryan Coogler Talks Inspirations And That Whale Moment [Exclusive Interview]

This interview contains mild spoilers for "Black Panther: Wakanda Forever."

"Black Panther: Wakanda Forever" just hit theaters, and if the early box office numbers are any indicator, it will be one of the most popular Marvel Cinematic Universe movies in a long time. After the tragic passing of Chadwick Boseman, however, the movie almost didn't happen. How could writer-director Ryan Coogler and the rest of the cast and crew head back to Wakanda so soon after T'Challa's death?

With "Wakanda Forever," Coogler did what seemed impossible: He created a compelling film that is a tribute to Boseman's legacy as well as a fun story that ticks all the comic book movie boxes.

I talked with Coogler about how he approached creating such a film. Read on for our discussion, which includes some of the movies that inspired "Wakanda Forever." (Spoiler: One of them is "Blackfish.")

'We were inspired by films that were big and intimate at the same time'

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.

One of the things I thought was so amazing about "Wakanda Forever" was the balance you had between characters' personal journeys and struggles against the epic scale and stakes of the overarching plot. How did you approach crafting the story and balancing these two things?

One came first, but not by far. You try to start with the personal. It's the only way I know how to work. I think my co-writer, Joe Robert Cole, and our producer Nate Moore, and [Marvel Chief Creative Officer] Kevin Feige for sure would agree that starting from the inside out is what makes the most sense. But also, at the same time, we kept in mind that we wanted to deliver on the scope and the scale. We wanted the audience to feel like they were watching a heart-stopping action movie as well as this film that reckons with how loss can alter you.

We were inspired by films that were big and intimate at the same time. I would often talk about wanting this movie to feel like a '90s movie. By '90s movie, I mean specifically like '90s Cameron, '90s Spielberg, in terms of these big scope-y action pieces. I'll even put "Malcolm X" in there and "Contact" in there ... your "Jurassic Parks" and your "Terminator 2s." "Terminator 2" is a movie about a surrogate father. It's a movie about regret and paranoia. But at the same time, when you think about that movie, I think about how I felt in some of those chase scenes. But I also think of how I felt when Arnold Schwarzenegger's character goes into that hot lava and you're heartbroken.

I'd also throw in "Aliens," and even "The Abyss" was a big inspiration. These movies that take you on a ride with the action. But also they feel tactile, the movie feels earnest — it's taking itself serious, and there's deep, deep, deep philosophical and interpersonal relationship things happening in these movies.

'How blessed and lucky were we to have the outlet for our emotions at the deep loss we were all feeling?'

Really, even before we lost Chadwick, this movie was always going to be a movie where the characters went through transformations. A movie where the characters would lose things that defined them and have to figure out a way to pick up the pieces and move forward. So I think that was what we were aiming at, you know what I mean? Aiming at doing both things. And I'd even say it on set sometimes. I'd say, "Big movie, big movie," just to remind everybody there's opportunity. We have something that if we do it right, people will want to see it. We were making movies during the pandemic, but it was like, "Man, maybe people will be back in theaters when this thing happens, and people can go have a communal experience."

How blessed are we, how lucky are we to have this opportunity? And also how blessed and lucky were we to have the outlet for our emotions at the deep loss we were all feeling? We've got an outlet for it, and we can show people what this person meant to us through our work. So often, people don't have that opportunity. People got to lose somebody that's important to them and get back to their job, and it's not a job that's artistic or it's not a job where they can shout from the mountain tops, "Hey man, we love this guy, and we miss him, and he was great." We get to do that through our work. It was a challenging process, but I felt deeply, deeply honored to partake in it.

'It was always an inside joke for us to have those two be the ones that encounter the whales'

"Wakanda Forever" is a film about overcoming grief, but there are also moments of joy and moments of humor. One scene I found particularly funny was when Okoye and Riri were on a bridge in Boston, on the Charles River. They're being chased by the Talokans and Okoye sees a blue whale and orca just jump out of the water. In the Charles River. Which is just crazy! How did that specific moment come to be?

[laughs] That was one that we thought up, and it is interesting, because the whole movie, Okoye is very cynical — our most cynical characters are probably her and M'Baku — and it was always an inside joke for us to have those two be the ones that encounter the whales and just how crazy that is. There's something funny about it to me, personally.

It's very funny.

Yeah, but it's also really cool. I'm from the Bay Area and SeaWorld is very popularized in culture and I was at Sundance when "Blackfish" was at Sundance, and that movie wrecked me. And we had a place called Marine World when I was coming up, and they had orcas and people who would do tricks with orcas and everything, and I associated the orca with this friendly animal that does tricks and everything. And when I learned what they really are, I was like, "Whoa." [laughs] So I always thought it was a little bit comical, for this thing that's so dangerous to look like it looks, and to be so massive and kind of crazy. So it was something for us that should be awesome and awe-inspiring, but also a little bit like, "What the F?" You know what I'm saying? Like, "What's going on here?" And the fact that it was Okoye who sees it and then has to go report back was always a little inside joke between the creators.

"Black Panther: Wakanda Forever" is now playing in theaters.