The metropolis at the center of Wakanda, hidden behind a veil of secrecy, is a wondrous and vibrant world, and it's when co-writer/director Ryan Coogler swoops through the city behind the futuristic warship helmed by our eponymous superhero that we realize Black Panther is going to stand above (if not fully apart from) its contemporaries in the genre of fantasy-tinged, action-heavy adventures. The detail is what first attracts us to Wakanda, and its history is just as fascinating: Before the days of British and European colonization of the African continent, the earth was struck by a meteorite made of the strongest metal on the planet. Vibranium, as it came to be called, would be the lifeblood of a small portion of civilization, and that portion closed itself off from the rest of the world.
This fictional history of an African country that, to those in real life, might represent an ideal is packed with a lot of text both on the surface and between the lines. This relative utopia was untouched by the slave trade, and that means there is a grim secret and some subsequent conflict from the decision not to pry into outside life. Wakandans, while under the rule of their various kings, were steadfast in their decision to leave well enough alone. Meanwhile, their less fortunate brothers were sentenced to centuries of bondage. Coogler and Joe Robert Cole's screenplay confronts this uncomfortable legacy in the person of the film's villain, which is another way to recognize that this, the 18th film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (and one of its best), is going to stand out from the rest of the pack.
Erik Stevens (Michael B. Jordan), that villain, has a point to make in his lifelong scheme to occupy the Wakandan throne, now filled by T'Challa (Chadwick Boseman), whose late father T'Chaka (John Kani) was one of the unintentional casualties in another fight far away from Africa (the one that was at the center of 2016's Captain America: Civil War). Stevens, who rose up both academically and in the United States military before going rogue and affording the nickname "Killmonger," wants the dark history of Wakanda to be widely known. T'Challa, greatly embarrassed by the bit of history that is revealed, is conflicted - vacillating between agreement with Stevens and fear of his method to find justice.
The plot finds T'Challa and Stevens's paths crossing when Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis), the one-armed arms dealer introduced to us in 2015's Avengers: Age of Ultron, is intercepted during a sale of a block of vibranium to Everett Ross (Martin Freeman), a CIA agent friendly with a certain group of superheroes. After a pair of phenomenally effective action sequences (a faux-one-take casino fight that travels from the first floor to the second with elegance, followed by a car chase through a bustling South Korean downtown district), Stevens reveals himself and his past.
Coogler populates the edges of the frame with yet more characters, from T'Challa's ex-girlfriend Nakia (Lupita Nyong'o), who is a spy undercover with a human trafficking ring until the point of her introduction, to T'Challa's younger, tech-savvy sister Shuri (Letitia Wright), who acts as her brother's Q in times of need, to fierce warrior Okoye (Danai Gurira), whose husband W'Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya) herds rhinos armored with vibranium, to Wakandan elders Zuri (Forest Whitaker), a tribal mystic, and Ramonda (Angela Bassett), a queen. Coogler, ever the consummate professional with ensembles, never undercuts any screen time for these characters, and more familiar faces fill even tinier roles elsewhere.
The plot might rely on the occasional contrivance (such as the way T'Challa, in a newfangled Black Panther suit, and Stevens, in his own get-up, inevitably face each other climactically) and some fidgety visual effects work, but the dense thematic core makes it hard to care about what amounts to a handful of quibbles, particularly considering that Rachel Morrison's crisp cinematography is blissful and Ludwig Goransson's percussive score (married to a cachet of original songs, produced by Kendrick Lamar) melds the familiar with the unpredictable. This is a character-driven MCU effort, focused on action in a way that is spectacular but on a smaller scale than the norm. The key is in the performances from Boseman and especially Jordan, who have a way of making the polarizing sides of a conflict feel not-all-that-completely-disparate. Black Panther is rousing and inspiring entertainment.
Chadwick Boseman (T'Challa/Black Panther), Lupita Nyong'o (Nakia), Danai Gurira Okoye), Michael B. Jordan (Erik Stevens/Killmonger), Martin Freeman (Everett Ross), Letitia Wright (Shuri), Daniel Kaluuya (W'Kabi), Winston Duke (M'Baku), Sterling K. Brown (N'Jobu), Angela Bassett (Ramonda), Forest Whitaker (Zuri), Andy Serkis (Ulysses Klaue), John Kani (T'Chaka).
Directed by Ryan Coogler and written by Coogler and Joe Robert Cole.
Rated PG-13 (prolonged action violence, a brief rude gesture).
Released on February 16, 2018.