The best movies of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (Iron Man, Guardians of the Galaxy, and now, Black Panther) all have a few things in common. For one, they’re essentially standalone, requiring nothing from their audience other than a willingness to have fun. Their other shared element is the introduction of a new world to their viewers. For Iron Man, that was the then-new and exciting MCU itself; Guardians of the Galaxy created a colorful, pulpy version of outer space; and now, Black Panther gives us Wakanda, a fictional African country that plays at third-world poverty but boasts a technologically advanced society hidden from all other nations.
Getting to know this new world is perhaps Black Panther’s greatest pleasure. For the first time in ages, Marvel has come up with something that can reasonably called “fresh” in the form of Wakanda, a fully-realized society falling somewhere between science fiction and myth. We’re quickly introduced to T’Challa, the latest in a long line of super-powered kings, as well as his friends and family. Just moments after his coronation, he must travel to South Korea to track longtime nemesis Klaue, though an even bigger threat lurks in the shadows.
This first third of Black Panther resembles, of all things, a Bond movie, complete with globetrotting, gadgets, and espionage. It’s a neat little diversion before the movie quickly – but gracefully – shifts tones in the second act. Here we’re introduced to the movie’s true villain, Erik Killmonger, an American with Wakandan heritage who challenges the throne. Played with bitter intensity by Michael B. Jordan, he quickly emerges as the MCU’s best villain to date. Though violent and sadistic, his motives are painfully sympathetic, and even T’Challa can’t help but see his side.
Speaking of his majesty, Chadwick Boseman is rock-solid in the title role, affecting a convincingly royal bearing while also displaying an unexpected gift for light comedy. He spends the majority of Black Panther outside the suit, which only works to the movie’s benefit. The supporting cast is a mixed bag, with Angela Bassett and Forrest Whittaker stuck with stock tribal elder roles; thankfully there’s also Letitia Wright, who steals scenes left and right as T’Challa’s teenage sister and tech provider Shuri.
Though most of Black Panther’s story is elegantly (if formulaically) structured, it falters in its finale, which devolves into one of the overlong battle sequences endemic to superhero movies. Fortunately, it regains its footing in time for a charming ending that nicely ties up the movie’s themes. Black Panther’s much-touted political aspect ends up being far less prevalent than some media outlets would lead you to believe, but it’s still very much present. The uncommonly bold screenplay is unafraid to address real issues in the African-American community while avoiding preachiness at almost every turn. The result is a movie that feels relevant without sacrificing subtlety or timelessness; we’ll see if Marvel can pull this trick off again in the inevitable sequel.