Black Panther ★★★½


The increasingly exasperating irony of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) is that very few of the franchise’s theatrical films — which now number 18 and counting — are particularly *cinematic*. That is, the series seldom feels like it’s capitalizing on the true potential of the big screen as a medium for flashy, thrilling action and gonzo science-fictional world-building. Considered collectively, the most successful aspects of the MCU features are their charming characters and their deft blend of sincerity and cheekiness. Given the evocative superheroes in the studio’s lineup and limitless possibilities of digital wizardry, it’s a bit puzzling that Marvel has settled on such enjoyable but prosaic attributes as the bedrock of its franchise, rather than the sort of adjectives that once screamed from Silver Age comic covers: AMAZING!!! INCREDIBLE!!! ASTONISHING!!! It’s an unforgivable shortcoming that the power-packed 'Avengers' films (2012 and 2015) boast not a single action set piece as inventive and mind-bending as the duo-dimensional alien-bazaar sequence in last year’s flawed but eye-popping 'Valerian and City of a Thousand Planets'.

Occasionally, something genuinely amazing does break through the endless wisecracks, blunt pathos, and entertaining yet unmemorable action sequences that have come to characterize the MCU. 'Ant-Man' (2015) cunningly employed its hero’s elastic size to deliver giddy nano-scale twists on the subgenre’s customary brawls, chases, and escapes. 'Doctor Strange' (2016) envisioned the jaw-dropping mystical duels that would unfold if characters could fragment space, reverse time, and slip into alternate realities. The 'Guardians of the Galaxy' features (2014 and 2017) and last year’s 'Thor: Ragnarok' delivered on the visual promise of Marvel’s “cosmic” stories, giving vivid life to the sort of grand, gaudy, and downright goofy science-fiction settings that wouldn’t seem out of place on a Roger Dean album cover.

'Black Panther', the latest feature in the MCU canon, is striking for similar reasons, as it lavishly realizes a world never previously seen in mainstream blockbuster cinema: an Afrofuturist utopia. Viewers of 'Captain America: Civil War' (2016) may recall that the Black Panther is the alter ego of T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), prince of the African nation Wakanda. As succinctly described in the new film’s animated prelude, the history of this fantastical realm has been dramatically shaped by a motherlode of the extraterrestrial metal vibranium, deposited eons ago by a meteoric impact. This substance not only altered the evolution of local flora and fauna but also allowed the native people to develop technology that was leaps and bounds beyond anything else on Earth. Isolated from the outside world behind an illusion of pastoral simplicity, Wakanda has secretly blossomed into the most advanced society on the planet, an African Shangri-La gracefully balanced between traditional tribal culture and bleeding-edge scientific wonders...

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