Marvel's Avengers Black Panther DLC is a very big deal, not only for the live-service game – which has struggled since launch – but for the people involved in War for Wakanda's production. Those people include Evan Narcisse, a writer on Spider-Man: Miles Morales, and actor Chris Judge, best known for his role as Kratos in the God of War series – both of whom are Black men living in America.
The cultural impact of Black Panther is undeniable, and his arrival in Marvel's Avengers is a much-needed shot of adrenaline. But the team behind War for Wakanda has worked incredibly hard to make sure the DLC doesn't just add to the game, but handles Black Panther's legacy – which includes the untimely passing of actor Chadwick Boseman – with grace.
We sat down with Narcisse and Judge to chat about what players can expect from Marvel's Avengers War for Wakanda, from the more guarded T'Challa to the expansive world of Wakanda, and what that means for video games and Black culture at large.
The weight of the Black Panther suit
Judge is quick to point out that his hesitancy to take on the role of T'Challa had everything to do with his love for the character and his fear of stepping into such an important role – not Chadwick Boseman's passing, as Crystal Dynamics was already working on War for Wakanda before his untimely death. "We started this long before Chadwick [passed]. There's been all this discussion about me deciding whether or not to do it. We were already recording when my good brother passed – went onto the ancestral plane," he explains. "My reluctance to do it was truly just fear. Chadwick's performance was beautiful, sweeping, majestic... My fear came from great respect, and my great reverence from what this character is, to me – has always been to me, my family, and the people around me." As he speaks, a Black Panther Funko pop rests on the shelf behind him. He's wearing a T'Challa shirt. "It wasn't that I didn't want to do it, it was, could I do it good enough?"
It was the inclusion of Narcisse that helped convince Judge to sign on, as he was also worried that Marvel's Avengers' story would be about the Avengers going to save Wakanda, rather than a celebration of the fictional place as a standalone power and a cultural touchstone. "They could have really expedited the whole negotiating process if they had just said Evan was attached. Because I know then that that would not be what it was about," Judge admits. "I mean yes, I wouldn't let it go down like that, either," Narcisse laughs. "But I appreciate you."
Once Judge decided to step into the Black Panther suit, he realized something. "This was a character that I just had to breathe in. It was already there, all I had to do was be willing to access it. And be willing to do the work, be it dialect, be it changing my own physicality to feel more lithe and more agile – and that's not only physically it's mentally," he says, with an all-too-familiar timbre.
Judge is built more like Kratos than T'Challa, with an imposing figure and deep, gravelly voice that forced him to approach the character from an entirely new direction – including dramatically changing his tone. "It was terrifying. God bless Beth McGuire [the dialect coach who worked on the Black Panther movie] to get me to trust that there are other areas in my instrument to be explored that had not previously been explored," he says.
Marvel's Avengers Black Panther is a different man from the one we've met in comics and in the MCU. "He's more aloof and standoffish, he's been king for a while now," explains Narcisse, who wrote The Rise of the Black Panther comic series, which focuses on T'Challa's origins. "He's confident in his ability to kind of fulfill the duties of king – be a strategic leader, an inspirational leader, embody the history of Wakanda… he's like 'I can do this.'"
In Marvel's Avengers: War for Wakanda, Ulysses Klaue comes sniffing around Wakanda and the evil corporation AIM backs his move, but T'Challa is certain he can shoo the bad dude away like an irritating fly. When Klaue proves to be more than just a casual nuisance, things get complicated. "T'Challa throughout the campaign is more about, 'Okay, how do I meet this challenge?' There's a philosophical divide between him and Shuri as to how to respond, and the Avengers are at the crux of that philosophical divide," Narcisse says. Shuri is willing to accept the Avengers' help, but T'Challa stubbornly refuses, and that back and forth propels you into the War for Wakanda campaign. "There are also some changes to his personal backstory that drive the different textures of this version of the character that I think even longtime fans are going to be interested to see and interact with," Narcisse assures me – and he'd be the one to know.
Then there's Wakanda itself, which is a visual spectacle that demanded some serious legwork for the developers. "It brings you a whole new swathe of possibilities," Narcisse points out. "They didn't reuse any assets; almost everything that you're going to see in this part of the campaign is new. And a lot of thought went into how we embody Wakandan culture and history within the aesthetics of this place."
Read our hands-on impressions of the new Black Panther DLC in the GamesRadar Marvel's Avengers: War for Wakanda preview.
"I was stunned. I was stunned when I got to first see the trailer," Judge says."It took my breath away. So it's exciting from a visual standpoint. But also what it says thematically, about collaboration, about respecting other cultures, respecting the power of women – respecting and celebrating. Not just, 'Hey, that's cool'. Like, 'fuck yeah'."
I ask what it means to bring Wakanda to the world of Marvel's Avengers. "Wakanda has been in games before, but you know, it's a place that you go to for a couple of missions and then you bounce. Here it's the whole deal, and hopefully there's a real positive consequence to wholeheartedly trying to create this kind of space in genre entertainment," Narcisse says, before pointing out something Square Enix may not be too happy to admit. "Let's be real, the reception that this announcement has got was, in order of magnitude, greater than anything else that's been part of the live service aspect of Avengers."
That reception is almost entirely due to the cultural importance of Black Panther and Wakanda across movies, comics, and now, games.
Black Panther forever
When I ask about creating a story for an iconic Black character in today's cultural climate, Narcisse is quick to interject. "Let me just say, first thing, it's not just last summer, you know? Last summer was the flashpoint of things that have been happening for centuries," he says. "We'll continue to work in a conceptual framework that doesn't always respect us and see us as human beings, right? That has, unfortunately, been part of the Black experience in America. That said, that makes the metaphorical power of a character like the Black Panther and Wakanda as a fictional construct so powerful. It lets you imagine what Black lives look like outside of oppressive systems. Entering that fictional space can be one of the first parts of learning to love yourself as a person of African descent. The Black Panther as a character certainly was part of my journey to self-love."
Judge's history with the Black Panther acting as a vehicle for self-love is similar to Narcisse's. "My parents put a very heavy emphasis on grammar, knowledge, seeking knowledge, which, really, at that time wasn't being celebrated nor cultivated," he explains. "Black Panther, for me, was the first time I saw it celebrated. So it has always had this great place in my heart. Because that was kind of: if you can see it, you can be it." He continues by discussing his illustrious career, and how it's helped him meet more people he can relate to. "I've got to meet Black people from all over the world who have always loved comics, who've always loved sci-fi, who've always loved fantasy, because that is the area that really allowed us to dream because society wasn't giving it to us." He pauses. "It's from a place of great reverence that I inhabit – for this time and space – T'Challa."
As our conversation shifts to discussing his efforts to embody the king of Wakanda, Judge begins to tear up. "It was a great healing time because there's a lot of stuff going on when we were recording this. God bless all the folks at Crystal Dynamics, there were times where we would just talk when we started sessions because we had just witnessed something going on or watched something on TV, and just, emotionally It was very difficult. This was almost a salve for that," he continues, visibly moved. "It was like 'if we could just do this, this would be so much simpler'. To be doing something that was about dignity and about respect and being a valued member of society, I really am thankful that I was fortunate to be part of this, especially during what was going on."
Marvel's Avengers War for Wakanda DLC debuts August 17 on PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X, and PC.