Chadwick Boseman has died. As the star of Marvel’s Black Panther—to say nothing of his career-making performance as Jackie Robinson in the 2013 biopic 42—Boseman lent quiet dignity and irresistible charisma to some of the most iconic roles of the last 10 years of film-making. According to the Associated Press, Boseman died today after a four-year battle with colon cancer. He was 43.
Born in South Carolina, Boseman studied acting and directing at Howard University and Oxford, before making his way to Los Angeles to pursue an acting career. He then spent more than a decade working in the trenches of TV, notching single-episode stints on dramas like Third Watch, ER, and CSI: NY, and more regular roles on shows like Lincoln Heights and Persons Unknown—the latter his first actual starring gig. But Boseman’s career suddenly skyrocketed in 2013, when he scored the role of barrier-breaking baseball star Robinson in Bryan Helgeland’s 42. Boseman drew praise for his performance, winning the approval of Robinson’s widow, and holding his own against an over-the-top Harrison Ford. (Our own review from the time, amusingly, refers to him as “a TV and film bit player,” before pointing out how well he embodied the role.)
Now an established name, Boseman stayed in the biopic lane with his next major project, taking on the far more flamboyant part of James Brown for 2014's Get On Up. But it wasn’t until two years later that Boseman would step into a role that was truly his, rather than an impression or recreation. That, after all, was when he was cast in Captain America: Civil War, the first film in which he played T’Challa, future king of Wakanda—but already the Black Panther.
In some ways, it was easy for Boseman’s quietly heroic performance as T’Challa to be over-shadowed—most especially in a film like 2018's Black Panther, which pitted him against many of the most charismatic performers of the entire MCU. But Boseman never let you forget that you weren’t just watching some random superhero, beating up Killmonger or battling it out alongside the Avengers—you were watching a king. Reserved, charming, and even occasionally, adorably, awkward, Boseman infused the character—who he played in 4 films, most recently 2019's Avengers: Endgame—with a humanity that lived alongside the dignity, and sometimes even the arrogance, of royalty. And to know, now, that he was accomplishing this feat of mythmaking-in-the-making while also fighting stage III, and then stage IV, colon cancer, only makes his accomplishments all the more staggering.
Boseman filmed two more movies in the wake of Endgame, lending his talents first to Brian Kirk’s thriller 21 Bridges, and then to Spike Lee’s recent war film Da 5 Bloods. He completed a third, George C. Wolfe’s adaptation of August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, last year, although it’s yet to be released. Which is, of course, among the most depressing aspect of his death: The feeling of an ascent not just muffled, but actively ripped away. There’s something very cruel about the fact that we’ll never get to see what Chadwick Boseman does next, to see how he took a moment of sudden superstardom and transformed it into a career of fascinating parts. Instead, we’re left with a body of work that still speaks for itself—even if the fact that it now has to can’t help but feel like anything but a tragedy.