Not much could feasibly be added to the second episode of Marvel’s What If…? to make it a better tribute to Chadwick Boseman. In a timeline where his T’Challa is picked up from Wakanda instead of Chris Pratt’s Peter Quill by Yondu (Michael Rooker), thus becoming Star-Lord in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, everything is infinitely better.
Drax’s (Dave Bautista) homeworld isn’t destroyed. Nebula’s (Karen Gillan) happy and well-adjusted. Thanos (Josh Brolin) never becomes completely genocidal (though he still thinks removing 50% of all life is a sound strategy). T’Challa’s mind for social politics and belief in people serves the universe very well, making him a legend among rogues.
It’s feel-good sci-fi, even when things start looking desperate against The Collector (Benicio Del Toro), with that cosmic Marvel vibe where the playground is large and could go anywhere. Boseman’s performance is typically captivating, full of the same zest for the material that helped make Black Panther one of the highlights of the franchise. Netflix’s See You Yesterday is a strong companion piece to T’Challa’s onscreen depictions, using science fiction to examine racial violence.
C.J. (Eden Duncan-Smith) and Sebastian (Danté Crichlow) are brilliant young students in New York who discover time travel, and start building contraptions to smoothly go into the recent past. It’s a kooky experiment in the vein of Doc from Back to the Future, until C.J.’s brother Cosmo is killed by police, and her science becomes the solution to her grief.
She uses her machine to go back and prevent Cosmo’s death, but just like Marty McFly’s own misadventures, she finds that playing with time, to any degree, is messy business. Directed by Stefon Bristol, who co-wrote the screenplay with Fredrica Bailey, See You Tomorrow has wishful thinking collide with the hard reality of lived violence and trauma. Some cycles of violence aren’t so easily escaped as tearing open time and space.
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Coming out in 2018, the premise and themes of the science fiction movie are still timely. Racial injustice and police brutality continue to inspire protests and demonstrations around the world, as incidents much like Cosmo’s occur with maddening regularity.
At the end of Black Panther, T’Challa visits Kilmonger’s childhood home in Oakland, California, and says he’s going to open an outreach centre there, to be part of Wakanda sharing its knowledge and resources. See You Tomorrow makes it clear this tech and know-how is only one step to fixing the broader systemic issues.
Bristol’s film is a reminder of the fantasy inherent in Black Panther, and the necessity for actual, meaningful engagement on a community level. No miraculous cure exists for what’s rotten at the core of institutions that allow police to murder people, or engage in racial discrimination with impunity. Nothing can bring those lost back. Instead, we have to dig in and find ways to uproot the problems.
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Nothing C.J. does gives her the life she wants, and her efforts just keep tangling her home up in more timey-wimey strangeness. The deeper and more desperate she becomes, the more we’re dragged away from why this is all happening in the first place. Obsession in the wake of profound loss can be a damaging thing, and Bristol captures the way our worldview can become so distorted when something we love is taken away from us.
Duncan-Smith, too, is integral to the emotionality. Her C.J. is not unlike Marvel’s Peter Parker, confident and creative – her time-machine involves strapping a smartphone to her wrist – but also bearing a weight no teen should have to carry. Spike Lee produces a professor of Bristol’s in NYU, and it’s not hard to see why the Do The Right Thing and BlacKkKlansman director became interested in the project. Even Michael J Fox pops by to give a nod of approval.
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Marvel Studios is making the wise choice not to replace Chadwick Boseman, but to imbue Black Panther 2 with his passing by having others become the heroes. Riri ‘Ironheart’ Williams is debuting via the sequel, ahead of her series on streaming service Disney Plus. See You Tomorrow shows the importance of what T’Challa represents, and why it takes more than superheroes to make a better future.