The following sentence is a severe understatement: Black Panther is a hit. It is breaking box office records left and right, spawning marketing stunts, and changing history.
Among this overwhelming success, it would seem difficult for any one individual to stand out from the crowd. And yet, that is precisely where Letitia Wright finds herself.
Wright portrays T’challa/Black Panther’s genius-engineer Shuri. Her comedic timing, as well as her chemistry with both Chadwick Boseman and Martin Freeman, made her an instant hit. Understandably wanting more, fans have already clamored to social media asking for her return, if not her own solo-spinoff.
This time, however, it seems Marvel may be ahead of the game. They have been laying a faint trail of breadcrumbs, and for those who follow it, there is a surprising but welcome destination: Letitia Wright just might be our new Iron Man. And here’s why.
*Warning: Spoilers ahead*
The Precedent: Riri Williams, a.k.a. Ironheart
The best clues to Marvel Studios’ intentions are the actions of Marvel Comics. A truth that is often seen as cynical is nonetheless true; once acquired by Disney, the comics branch of Marvel became a vital testing ground. Characters, costume designs, and at the most, entire storylines are first produced on the page. Then, slowly but surely, if they are successful, they make their way to the big screen.
During the summer of 2016, the mantle of Iron Man was passed off to a young African-American genius engineer from Chicago named Riri Williams.
She is presented as a wunderkind, attending M.I.T. at 11 years old. While attending school, she decides to take on a unique project: building her own version of Iron Man’s armor.
Riri succeeds in building the suit and is eventually endorsed by Stark. After he falls into a coma, she takes on the mantle Ironheart, to both honor him, and take his place.
Ironheart still has an ongoing series, as well as appearing in many Marvel events and crossovers.
All this to say that Marvel has tested out a genius young black woman as Iron Man’s replacement – and it worked.
The Evidence: Marketing the smartest woman on Earth
Did you notice anything about the marketing before Black Panther‘s release? Before the trailer played in theaters, there was a little introduction portion featuring Chadwick Boseman and Letitia Wright. They joke, play up the movie, and convey the chemistry between their characters.
The marketing is important, despite how unassuming it may seem. They could’ve put Michael B. Jordan, or Danai Gurira, or Lupita N’yongo – all just as present and essential to the film. Intentionally, they chose Wright.This same exposure was replicated in TV spots, trailers, merchandising, and more.
Even more important than the exposure is what was said about Wright’s character. Last February, in an interview with Black Panther producer Nate Moore, he had this to say about Shuri:
“As far as the technologically-advanced side, in our mind, and in our incarnation, Shuri is the head of the Wakanda Design Group. She’s the smartest person in the world, smarter than Tony Stark but she’s a sixteen-year-old girl which we thought was really interesting.”
Marvel is (in)famous for their control over information. Moore’s quote here is not an accident – especially since it was included as part of a canon comic.
In Infinity War Prelude #1, a prequel comic set immediately after the events of Captain America: Civil War, Shuri compares her genius to Tony Stark in a conversation with her brother. The inclusion in this comic is important – the similarity to Moore’s comments are no accident. This is not an opinion. It is a Marvel directive. Shuri is smarter than Tony Stark.
So, we have Marvel intentionally setting up both her comparative intelligence to Stark and giving her character heavy exposure. But it is with one line in Black Panther that the foundation for her future is laid plain.
The Possibilities: Shuri-Q, or Shuri-James Bond?
At the end of the film, T’Challa brings Shuri to Oakland, California, to the site of their uncle’s murder at their father’s hand. He tells her that he has bought the surrounding buildings, and will develop Wakanda’s first international outreach center. Then, he gives her the key to her future: T’Challa instructs Shuri to handle the science and technology exchange.
With this simple line, the possibilities for Shuri’s future begin to reveal themselves.
On one path, she can be the “Q” to the actual Riri Williams, this time, based in Oakland. While Riri’s character builds the suit herself in the comics, it is massively upgraded by Stark and his A.I. Friday. In this case, Shuri would fill this role, essentially becoming the outfitter, Jarvis, and perhaps remote pilot for Riri.
On another path, Shuri can be the “James Bond” and become the new Iron Man herself. She derides the area T’Challa brings her too, wishing he had taken her to Disneyland or Coachella instead. This sets up a nice arc of Shuri discovering an obligation and attachment to Oakland, standing in for the non-Wakandan black population of the world.
Well, maybe! But why replace Iron Man anyway?
Why else? The House of Mouse is interested in one thing and one thing only: merchandising power.
Robert Downey Jr.’s contract ends after the still-untitled Avengers 4. While he has extended before, and that Disney money is no joke, Downey and several of his co-stars have expressed interest in moving on. All good things must end.
Except for that merchandising money.
That’s why it’s a near guarantee that Black Panther was setting up Sebastian Stan as the next Captain America. It’s why new characters continue to come down the pipe so late into the game, including Captain Marvel and the Wasp. And you’d better believe its why Disney was willing to invest whatever it took to get Spider-Man.
But the anchor for the entire MCU has always been Iron Man. The larger story is connected through his multi-film character arcs. And he’s on the toys. Lots and lots of toys.
Iron Man isn’t going anywhere. Robert Downey Jr., yes. Tony Stark, yes. But that iconic helmet? That’s going to be worn by somebody, at least until Disney deems it no longer profitable.
With Black Panther‘s success, Letitia’s Wright magnetic charisma, and their already comics tested-character, you can place safe money on Shuri being Marvel’s first choice to take the mantle.