There is one dull moment in Black Panther. Exactly one. And the fact that it comes courtesy of Stan Lee's now-inevitable cameo speaks volumes about this rich and electrifying instalment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. When the man who ostensibly founded the franchise shows up, it feels like a predictable, obligatory inclusion in a film that runs from those labels every other chance it gets. Lee's presence nods to the usual formula that's been deployed for 17 big-screen chapters — but, coming in at number 18 in a series that shows no signs of slowing down, Black Panther refuses to stick to that template. It's one of the few comic book flicks in living memory that doesn't spend its time setting up the next movie or shoehorning in links to past titles. The film stands on its own merits, and it's absolutely glorious.
Although viewers first met Chadwick Boseman's T'Challa, aka Black Panther, back in Captain America: Civil War, his debut solo outing is still something of an origin story. Despite this, in exploring who the newly crowned Wakandan king is, where he's from and the struggles he's facing, the film prowls down its own path. After the death of his father, T'Challa finds himself at a crossroads about the future of his nation — a place that has long chosen to horde its considerable technological advancements, close its borders and hide its true nature from the world. Some close to him, such as his head of security W'Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya), support the insular status quo. Others, including his ex-girlfriend turned secret special forces operative Nakia (Lupita Nyong'o), advocate for helping those in need.
A Marvel movie that weighs up the merits of isolationist policies versus social responsibility, all while grappling with race and class as well? With its eyes firmly on current world affairs, Black Panther certainly isn't afraid of getting topical. Directed and co-written by Ryan Coogler, the film blends the rousing politics of his debut, Fruitvale Station, with the earnest spectacle of his follow-up, the Rocky-spinoff Creed. It's a superhero flick with something to say and no qualms about saying it. At the same time, the ambitious effort nods effectively to Shakespeare in its family dynamics, and offers up smart spy action complete with its own gadget guru (Letitia Wright, a scene-stealer as T'Challa's younger sister Shuri). Packed to the brim (although it never feels overstuffed), the movie also makes a stand for formidable women through General Okoye (Danai Gurira), the king's loyal, lethal and highly memorable bodyguard.
Marvel's last title, the wonderfully distinctive Thor: Ragnarok, successfully carved its own niche within the MCU's usual confines. While that film proved an impressive feat, Black Panther goes one step further, effectively smashing the standard mould to pieces. This shines through in two areas in particular. The first is in the film's treatment of its primary antagonist, with unruly weapons dealer Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) a mere distraction on the road to the determined Erik 'Killmonger' Stevens (Michael B. Jordan). Villains aren't typically Marvel's strong suit, but here the fight between opposing forces feels refreshingly astute and even-handed. Casting assists considerably in this regard, with both Boseman and Jordan bringing considerable gravitas to their roles. Coogler also demonstrates an exceptional command of tone, delivering a film that serves up a few well-earned laughs, but takes its overall task seriously.
In a picture positively teeming with highlights, however, Black Panther's greatest quality is its all-round embrace of African culture. In every aspect of its look, sound and feel, this chapter is like nothing else in the Marvel universe, and that's clearly by design. Twice during the film, outsiders enter Wakanda and try not to let their jaws drop to the floor — and it's easy to understand their reactions. Frankly, it's the same one we had as the end credits rolled. Coogler has crafted an entertaining, engaging and impassioned movie that is both proud of and confident in its differences, and is also committed to shining the spotlight on the people that blockbuster cinema so often ignores. What could be more awe-inspiring than that?