At their worst, superhero stories are childish or brutal power fantasies. At their best, they're powerful ways of imagining a better world. Rarely has a movie exemplified the second mode better than Black Panther, which occupies a special place in the Marvel canon: It's the first film showcase for a black superhero since 2004 (when the Blade series ended), with an almost all-black cast and an unprecedented number of women in major roles.
That alone would be impressive, but Black Panther isn't just notable for the firsts it represents. In his depiction of the fictional kingdom of Wakanda, powered by alien-meteorite technology and untouched by European colonization, director Ryan Coogler has crafted a visually stunning fusion of African traditions and sci-fi futurism. While the film's story doesn't revolutionize the superhero formula, it does feature one of the meatiest Marvel-movie conflicts ever, thanks to an antagonist who actually makes a persuasive case for himself.
Prince T'Challa of Wakanda (Chadwick Boseman), otherwise known as Black Panther, made his on-screen debut in Captain America: Civil War. In that film, bad guys killed his father; this one opens with his ascent to the throne. Meanwhile, in Europe, the theft of a powerful Wakandan artifact spells trouble for T'Challa's peaceful realm, which uses holograms to conceal its technological riches from outsiders.
Boseman gives T'Challa a contemplative, Shakespearean sort of kingliness. His calm finds a counterpoint in the trio of fiery, formidable women who surround him: his ex, Nakia (Lupita Nyong'o); his bodyguard, Okoye (Danai Gurira); and his teenage sister, Shuri (Letitia Wright), who cooks up nifty gadgets like Wakanda's version of James Bond's Q.
It's fun just watching these characters play Bond, going undercover to recover the artifact in a South Korean casino. But the plot really kicks into gear at the film's midpoint, when the American who pinched the artifact (Michael B. Jordan) reveals that he has a close connection to Wakanda's throne and a rival vision for its future. A former black-ops agent nicknamed "Killmonger," he's witnessed racialized oppression around the world, and he wants to use Wakanda's firepower to do something about it.
Using judicious flashbacks to Killmonger's childhood in Oakland, Calif., Coogler links the fantastical Wakanda to the lived experience of the kind of kid who, outside the Marvelverse, might have read Black Panther comics and dreamed of embodying T'Challa's power. When that kid grows up and tries to seize the power for himself, the conflict resonates, rich in its real-world analogues: Killmonger plays a militant Malcolm X to T'Challa's Martin Luther King Jr.
And Coogler honors both those archetypes. Moral complexity is not new to superhero movies, but this may be the first one in which the hero unabashedly changes his worldview and tactics after learning a few hard truths from the villain. While the film's climactic battle is chaotic and over-reliant on CGI, it leads to a wonderfully staged swan song, perhaps the most genuinely tragic moment the Marvel films have had.
Wakanda is a triumph of production design, blending the multicolored bustle of African street life with the icy skyscrapers of 20th-century futurism. It's a great place to escape to for a few hours. Yet there's nothing escapist about moments like the one when Shuri snaps at CIA agent Everett Ross (Martin Freeman), calling him "colonizer." It's a laugh line — one of many — but has a genuine bite. And it's those biting reminders of reality that give this lavish comic-book fantasy its punch.