Marvel has shown us super-soldiers and tech geniuses, demigods and inhumans, spies and a Spider-Man, but in “Black Panther,” the franchise showcases a character who’s totally new and fascinating: a king, trained to fight and born to lead.
This 18th chapter in the Marvel Cinematic Universe is the most dramatically compelling of the bunch, and the most fully realized. Credit the brilliant work of director Ryan Coogler (“Creed”) and a crew of determined artists, who deliver high emotion and the most complete world-building the franchise has ever done.
Marvel has taken us to Thor’s Asgard and the various planets where the Guardians of the Galaxy perform their heroic deeds. But the studio has never created a place as fantastical and down-to-earth as Wakanda, the African nation first depicted in comic-book form in 1966 — and the first place in Marvel’s movie travels that’s as good as the brochure describes it.
Wakanda is blessed with prosperity and technology, and untouched by colonizing interlopers, thanks to the abundance of the valuable (and fictional) element vibranium. Known in Marvel lore as the stuff Captain America’s shield is made from, vibranium is a superstrong, bulletproof metal with energy-dispersing properties that have allowed Wakanda to live in high-tech splendor, completely hidden from the rest of the world.
The Marvel movies introduced viewers to Wakanda two years ago, in “Captain America: Civil War,” when the country’s wise King T’Chaka (John Kani) died in a terrorist bombing at a United Nations meeting in Vienna. T’Chaka’s son Prince T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) was revealed then to be the nimble hero known as Black Panther.
In this film, we first see a young T’Chaka (played by John Kani’s son, Atwanda) confronting his wayward brother, N’Jobu (Sterling K. Brown, from “This Is Us”), in, of all places, Oakland, Calif., circa 1992 — an event with repercussions throughout the film.
Cut to present day, just after T’Chaka’s death in Vienna, as T’Challa ascends to his father’s throne. As leader, he must deal with the same thorny question every Wakandan leader has faced: whether to continue to hide its bountiful prosperity and technology or to open Wakanda to the world and possibly endanger his country.
T’Challa has powerful friends in his corner: the regal queen mother, Ramonda (Angela Bassett); his tech-wizard kid sister, Shuri (Letitia Wright); the well-traveled spy — and his ex-girlfriend — Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o); the mystical high priest Zuri (Forest Whitaker); and his most loyal general, Okoye (Danai Gurira, from “The Walking Dead”). They will be needed when T’Challa faces some imposing enemies, including the arms dealer Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis), one of the few outsiders ever to venture into Wakanda, and a warrior with the fearsome nickname of Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan).
Killmonger’s backstory, and the ultimate confrontation between him and T’Challa, melds Wakanda’s past and present, and the pitfalls of the country’s long isolation. It also spurs T’Challa to make a fateful choice that will define his reign as king.
That’s some complex stuff for a superhero movie, and Coogler and co-screenwriter Joe Robert Cole give it the emotional weight it deserves. They also remember this is a Marvel movie and set a furious pace with dynamic action set pieces that include a heist in London, a hyperkinetic car chase in South Korea and a battle royale back home featuring armor-plated rhinos.
Coogler and his crew deliver spectacle galore, with production designer Hannah Beachler (“Moonlight”) and costume designer Ruth Carter (“Selma,” “Marshall”) evoking the richness of African culture in every detail. All of it is sumptuously photographed by cinematographer Rachel Morrison (“Mudbound”), making this easily the best-looking Marvel movie ever.
But where Coogler truly succeeds beyond the confines of “just a superhero movie” is in how he tells a complex emotional story where even Jordan’s multishaded villain can evoke some amount of sympathy. With Boseman’s kingly performance, this “Black Panther” commandingly mixes the epic with the personal in an intensely satisfying whole. The Marvel saga will carry on with “Avengers: Infinity War” in May, but I, for one, can’t wait for a return trip to Wakanda.
A king rises in a prosperous African nation, in Marvel’s boldest and best movie yet.
Where • Theaters everywhere.
When • Opens Friday, Feb. 16.
Rating • PG-13 for prolonged sequences of action violence and a brief rude gesture.
Running time • 134 minutes.