With the Marvel Cinematic Universe ever expanding, each new entry has a tougher challenge to meet when it comes to telling a fresh yet fitting story, packed with action, emotion and spectacle. Audiences want to be reliably awed, yet exposed to something they haven't seen before. Writer/director Ryan Coogler gives us all that and then some, plunging audiences into the rich and thrilling world of Black Panther's Wakanda.
T'Challa (Chadwick Boseman) entered the MCU in 2016's Captain America: Civil War, teaming up with some of the Avengers to track down the terrorist who murdered his father, Wakanda's ruler. In that introduction, viewers got glimpses into the high-tech secrets of this secluded (and fictional) African nation. In Black Panther, we are welcomed into its vibrant streets, glimmering train-ways, top-secret labs and most sacred royal rituals. Among these are the coronation rites that T'Challa must complete to officially take his father's place as king, and as Wakanda's homegrown superhero Black Panther. But the new king faces a national crisis when snarling arms dealer Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) and his curious colleague Kilmonger (Michael B. Jordan) steal some of the nation's most treasured resource, vibranium (aka the same stuff Cap's shield is made of).
The premise spins into a globe-trekking adventure that bounds from Oakland to London to Busan, and back to Wakanda. Along the way, there are the kind of elaborate action sequences audiences have come to expect from the MCU. With Wakanda's warriors boasting a blend of technologically advanced blasters and eye-popping hand-to-hand combat skills, Black Panther shakes up the standard car chase and climactic battle a bit. And while there's lots of jaw-dropping moments, it's The Walking Dead's Danai Gurira as T'Challa's right-hand woman/leader of his guards who proved my favorite fighter.
Don't get me wrong. Boseman is divine as Black Panther. His regal posture and bright smile make it easy to see why T'Challa is beloved by his people. With his quick-witted sister Shuri (Letitia Wright), he's playful and sometimes plays the fool. In battle, he is a knight, fighting for honor and with honor. He's a hero you can and will cheer for. But as Okoye, Gurira gets to have more fun. While T'Challa must be diplomatic to an American agent (Martin Freeman), Okoye can throw side-eye and threats in her native tongue. Even her warnings come with a winking wisdom, for she suffers no fools. On the battlefield, she is so fast, fun and ferocious I began to fantasize about a spinoff movie. But this is an elegant ensemble piece, stuffed to the gills with great performances.
As T'Challa's challenging ally, Lupita Nyong'o brings moments of beguiling lightness, steely cool and earnest pathos. Andy Serkis is a rollicking and demented joy as a crass villain who just really loves his work. Winston Duke (M'Baku) brings a macho bravado, edged with a cocky humor. Letitia Wright is pitch-perfect and hilarious as T'Challa's smirkingly irreverent little sister/top engineer, whose rolling out technobabble with the ease of James Bond's trusty Q, then ragging on her royal brother for his questionable fashion choices. It's great fun, and grounds their relationship with a powerful swiftness. But best of all in a really remarkable cast is Michael B. Jordan, who absolutely kills it as Killmonger.
The MCU often struggles with giving us villains anywhere near as compelling as their heroes. Black Panther conquered this problem by casting a wildly charismatic actor to flash a smile, swagger and quip with all the confidence of a movie star. It's intoxicating, and makes every Killmonger scene come alive. But it's not Jordan's star power alone that makes Killmonger one of the best villains the MCU has seen. It's that Black Panther weaves for him a motivation that is personal, political, and -- to a degree -- understandable. And Jordan radiates with the wrath and determination of it all. So, even as you're rooting for T'Challa, you're not totally rooting against Killmonger. Which makes the final sequence a uniquely heady experience. And when the credits roll, you're left pondering not just the final speech of the film's hero, but also that of its villain.
On top of all this, Black Panther is an absolutely gorgeous film. Lensed by Academy Award-nominated cinematographer Rachel Morrison, this superhero epic boasts striking shots that bolster every big emotional moment, and buoy every pivotal action. Some sequences are the stuff of top-notch sci-fi, others that of royal drama, and still others surreal and flush with raw emotion. But for all these tonal shifts, Coogler's vision and Morrison's camera keep it all cohesive, flowing and powerfully poignant. Simply put, Black Panther is absolutely majestic.
Black Panther opens Feb. 16 from Marvel Studios.