‘Black Panther’ is a stylish, socially relevant home-run for Marvel Studios

James Preston Poole

Marvel Studios made a name for itself by being ahead of the curve in the superhero landscape, and “Black Panther” is no exception.

Directed by Ryan Coogler, the latest entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe has garnered considerable hype not only for being one of their most ambitious visual offerings, but also for featuring a primarily black cast and crew in a major studio tentpole. Although it might not seem possible for this film to live up to expectations set for it, “Black Panther” rises to the occasion.

After the death of his father, Prince T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) returns to Wakanda, a hidden African kingdom with extreme technological advances, to be crowned king.

Boseman makes for a respectable lead as the headstrong new King of Wakanda, providing the regality and conviction he brought to the table in “Captain America: Civil War,” but it’s the supporting characters around him that really start “Black Panther” off on the right foot.

Even though the film features proven talent such as Academy Award winners Lupita Nyong’o and Forest Whitaker, newcomers Letitia Wright and Danai Gurira eclipse them at every moment. Wright is an absolute joy in every scene as Shuri, T’Challa’s tech-savy sister, threatened only to be upstaged by Gurira’s charismatic Okoye, the leader of T’Challa’s security detail.

The world around the cast is just as impressive. If there was ever any complaint about a lack of style in Marvel Studios films, this film is a visual rebuttal. Wakanda overflows with rich colors, and a delightfully unusual score by Ludwig Göransson supplements the atmosphere.

Cinematographer Rachel Morrison proves exactly why she’s Academy Award-nominated by working with Coogler and Industrial Light & Magic to transport audiences to this sci-fi world that marries futurism and a rich sense of African culture.

The utopian Wakanda can only be enjoyed for so long before being disrupted by the arrival of Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), an American with a shadowy past bent on taking the nation down. Aided by a gleefully over-the-top Andy Serkis as Ulysses Klaue, Killmonger is easily the strongest part of the film, giving an emotional, complex performance as a man who wishes to use Wakanda’s throne to right the racial injustices he’s seen in the world.

As seen in his prior film “Creed,” Coogler knows how to stage an excellent action sequence. From a one-shot brawl in South Korea, to an ensuing car chase, to a jaw-dropping fight for the throne between T’Challa and Killmonger, viewers will frequently have to stop to catch their breath.

Moreover, despite hitting plot beats familiar to the superhero genre, the script by Coogler and Joe Robert Cole may be the most mature that Marvel Studios has ever put out. Coogler and Cole explore heavy themes: leadership, the psychological impact the death of loved has on an individual and strong commentary on racial prejudice.

Through Killmonger, who grew up on the streets of Oakland, the audience sees the systematic oppression of African-Americans that he had endured. His drive to try and get Wakanda to do something about it through violent revolution forces audiences to grapple with the genuine moral question of whether or not his goal is worth the means.

This question not only lingers for the audience, but also King T’Challa. Through his conflict with Killmonger, he comes to realize that perhaps his nation’s isolationism and lack of initiative against black oppression in the rest of the world may not be the right path. It’s this thoughtfulness that elevates “Black Panther” from a great superhero film to a great film, period.

Rating: 4.5/5 Stars