The story takes place after the events of Captain America: Civil War, and you’ll need to see that film to better understand this one: Wakanda, a reclusive nation rich with an exotic metal called vibranium, gets thrust into the spotlight when its ruler, King T’Chaka (John Kani), is killed at a global peace summit. T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), his oldest son and heir, inherits both the throne and the superhero mantle of Black Panther, just as Wakanda erupts with social and political upheaval. Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), an American cousin with a meteor-sized chip on his shoulder, teams up with a cackling, off-kilter arms dealer (Andy Serkis) to usurp T’Challa’s title and steer this proud, wealthy country toward world domination. To restore peace to his people, T’Challa must turn to his tech-savvy sister (Letitia Wright), a former flame (Lupita Nyong’o), and a squirrelly American spy (Martin Freeman).
All this plot relies on whip-smart filmmaking to pull it off, and Coogler and his skilled actors completely succeed: Boseman rightly realizes that a superhero without some human shading will feel unsympathetic and uninteresting. For all his powers, T’Challa seems shaken by grief and unsure about his ability to lead, and this makes his arc feel much more relatable. Conversely, the best villains pepper their madness with method and empathy. Jordan brings passion, ambition, and deep-seated pain to his performance, making him one of the most credible bad guys in Marvel’s Cinematic Universe. Serkis plays Ulysses Klaue with so much wild-eyed wackiness that his character would feel right at home in Batman’s gallery of rogues.
If I’ve got a quibble with all this, it lies in the film’s abundant CGI landscapes. When the camera pans across the urban sprawl of the country’s teeming capital, what we see feels as fake as any matte painting in Wizard of Oz. It made me think of George Lucas’ obnoxious, ineffectual use of digital scenery in the Star Wars prequels, and that ain’t a good thing.
That’s mainly just me being nit-picky. If you heave a dart at a wall of superhero movie posters, chances are Black Panther is better than whatever you hit. If there’s an Achilles heel to the Marvel movies, it’s that sometimes their standalone features can seem like placeholders until the latest Avengers flick barrels into theaters. Black Panther does just fine all by its lonesome, and raises the bar for all superhero movies to come. This is one you definitely don’t want to miss.
134 min. PG-13.