Black Panther ★★★★½

Eighteen films in, the Marvel Cinematic Universe could use a bit of shaking up. And it's not the first time. It is perhaps why Marvel Studios has been so successful is that they know how to adhere to their own formula while throwing in new and exciting elements that redefine their own internal world. In some ways, Black Panther embraces the familiarity of the Marvel Universe while also being one of those films that opens up the world to something bigger.

Following his introduction in Captain America: Civil War, T'Challa (Chadwick Boseman) returns home to the isolated African nation of Wakanda as the new king. The burden of the position and the loss of his father weighs heavily on him. But what makes Black Panther one of the best MCU films to date is that it leverages this personal story of loss and premature responsibility, which is interesting enough on its own, into something even more meaningful. Its character-driven story is personal, but it is also political, exploring the idea of Wakanda's place in the world and what it means to be a wealthy and technologically-advanced uncolonized African nation in a world where the rest of the continent struggles to cope with a centuries-long legacy of colonization and the transatlantic slave trade.

At odds with T'Challa's continuing national isolationism—the thing that has allowed Wakanda to flourish outside of the world's greedy eye—are competing foreign policy philosophies that Wakanda should either use its power defensively, to help the world, or offensively, to fight back against growing corruption and injustice. These poles are represented in the figures of Nakia (Lupita Nyong'o), a Wakandan spy, and Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), an African-American black ops soldier who views Wakanda's protectionist history as one that has turned its back on "people who look like us."

Black Panther doesn't shy away from its connection to an authentic black experience that is rooted in centuries of real-world geopolitical power dynamics. In fact it embraces it fully. We get to see an afrofuturist vision of what Africa might have been, but writer/director Ryan Coogler is smart enough to place that within a context of what actually was for Africa and its diaspora: the thing about Killmonger is that in many ways he's kind of right. And because of that he's unlike any villain in the Marvel Universe so far, and the movie is the better for it. That layered complexity makes for a character who isn't just more interesting, but is also more sympathetic. You could come away from Black Panther feeling like he's the real tragic hero of the film, even as he openly advocates murder—but then, so does Frank Castle.

It's beautiful and beautifully sad portrait of what happens when righteous anger is allowed to turn to violent hate. I don't think the film scorns Killmonger, as much as it mourns his lost potential. T'Challa is perhaps the most well-rounded of the Marvel superheroes, one who visibly grows and learns from his experiences, not just here but in Civil War as well. More importantly, he learns from his enemies, because he allows himself to feel compassion for them. That in itself is a radical quality, especially in a king. The final scene between T'Challa and Killmonger is wonderful, and Killmonger's final line in the film rings with truths of the black liberation struggle that resonate far beyond the boundaries of superhero cinema.

Black Panther is one of the most fully-realised and self-contained MCU films, one that works equally well as an addition to the canon and on its own. It's surprising how little you need to know about the previous entries in the franchise to enjoy this film. Even its connections to Age of Ultron and Civil War are recapped for new viewers. It really feels like Marvel knew Black Panther would attract non-comic book audiences, and gave Coogler the freedom to tell a unique story that wasn't bogged down by world-building and stage setting for a sequel. It's easy to envision the blowback if Marvel had finally hired a black director to helm a movie with a primarily black cast set in Africa, and then had their hands all over the production—the hands off approach might have been a political necessity, but it's also an artistic boon to the film. No doubt this film does set up a lot for the upcoming Avengers: Infinity War, but it does so subtly and without drawing attention to it.

Instead we get a few familiar faces, like Andy Serkis' arms dealer Ulysses Klaue from Age of Ultron and Martin Freeman's CIA agent Everett Ross from Civil War , along with a wealth of new characters, and it's hard to overstate the degree to which these new characters are all scene-stealers. This is undoubtedly Marvel's most female-fronted film, where the women are not only allowed to exist and have agency but are allowed to be indispensable to the movie's world and its story. It's a weird thing when you have Angela Bassett in your movie—she's playing T'Challa's mother—and she's only the fourth female lead. The other three are Okoye (Danai Gurira), a Wakandan general and leader of the female special forces unit, the Dora Milaje, the aforementioned spy and T'Challa's ex-lover, Nakia, and the wonderfully wise-cracking and brilliant Shuri (Letitia Wright), T'Challa's younger sister and head of Wakandan science & tech innovations. These women aren't just unapologetically present, they're fully developed, unique, and unapologetically black, from the way Shuri offhandedly calls Ross "colonizer" to the way Okoye throws her wig at an opponent during combat.

Coogler assembled a dream team behind the scenes for this production, reuniting with a lot of his previous pre-Marvel collaborators, including composer Ludwig Göransson, who provides one of the richest Marvel scores so far, and cinematographer Rachel Morrison, who follows up her Oscar-nominated turn in Mudbound with another example of her stellar talents behind the camera. Wakanda is exquisitely-designed by production designer Hannah Beachler and costume designer Ruth E. Carter. We get five distinct Wakandan tribes, each with their own unique look informed by actual African cultures. I do wish we got to spend more time in the capital city, but already Wakanda feels more lived in than Asgard felt over three Thor films.

Speaking of Thor, this film shares a lot with that character's solo movies. The royal family drama at the heart of the film recalls both the first and third Thor films, while the actual plot and thematic interest in colonialism of Black Panther shares a lot of beats with last fall's Thor: Ragnarok—but Coogler cares much more deeply about his characters than Taika Waititi did, who often seemed more focused on the 'fun' of that film that about wrestling with the implications of big events that were happening. That's not to say Black Panther isn't fun: it just balances its character drama with its action in a much smoother way—like The Lion King meets a James Bond flick. It doesn't consistently have the best of Marvel's big action set pieces, and it often becomes mired in the weightless CGI that plagues so many blockbusters these days, but it does have one of the single best action sequences—the South Korean casino fight/car chase—in any superhero film.

Black Panther includes an ending that recalls that of the first Iron Man film, one of those great moments that keep changing the world and keeping the Marvel Cinematic Universe lively and relevant, because it keeps us exploring the what if?s of these films' implications. What if a billionaire fought crime? What if aliens came out of a hole in the sky? What if the US government was infiltrated by terrorists? What if there was a nation in Africa this rich in innovation and culture and this untouched by violent exploitation? The best Marvel films ask us to consider things about the world in which we live. Black Panther asks us to consider, like all Marvel films do, what it means to have power, and what responsibility we have to use that in service of others. And it shows that that question isn't always as black or white as it first seems.