The Marvel Cinematic Universe has changed not only how superhero movies are made but how blockbuster franchises are handled, though that success has come with a cost. While each successive installment in this seemingly neverending franchise has raised the stakes and expanded upon what came before, the sheer size and scale of the MCU has ironically become its biggest problem to content with. It’s getting increasingly difficult for any new movie in the series — especially solo outings — to make a lasting impression, as most are structured to be stepping stones to the next big crossover event rather than standalone movies with a complete, satisfying plot structure. Black Panther, the 18th MCU installment, is unmistakably a Marvel movie but it may be the first one that actually feels important outside of simply moving the needle along to the next chapter in this sprawling cinematic story of heroes and gods in cool outfits.

Black Panther picks up a short time after the events of Captain America: Civil War, with Wakandan prince T’Challa preparing to ascend the throne following the death of his father. While T’Challa adjusts to his new role as both superhero and leader of one of the wealthiest and most mysterious nations in the world, he also must contend with threats from outside and within Wakanda’s borders. Chadwick Boseman really comes into his own here as the title hero, digging far deeper into a character who only had a minor, yet memorable part to play in Civil War. While Boseman’s T’Challa still exudes the same cool confidence he did previously, he is much more vulnerable and fallible this time out, unsure of his fitness to rule and questioning not only his place but that of his extremely affluent home nation in a changing world.

Fortunately, T’Challa has no shortage of people to turn to for help and as good as Boseman is, it’s Black Panther’s (predominately female) supporting cast that carry the film. Wakanda may have a patriarch as its head of state but in many ways, director Ryan Coogler presents the fictional African nation as a matriarchal society in which the women not only play an active role in ruling but are also just as formidable (if not more so) in combat as their male counterparts. Specifically, it’s a trio of actresses who do the heavy lifting and they all light up the screen for different reasons. Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o shows up as Nakia, a Wakandan spy whose work has afforded her many valuable connections to the outside world. Nakia also falls into the love interest role but her performance subverts the “woman to be won” trope at every turn. Nyong’o’s playful banter with Boseman may be sweet, but her character is driven by much more than just flirting with the king,. Nakia is conflicted by both her duty to herself and to her country and in some ways is the moral compass of the film, as she believes that Wakanda could be doing more to leverage its abundant wealth and resources to help other nations.

Marvel Studios

Best known for her role as Michonne on The Walking Dead, Danai Gurira is a perfect fit as T’Challa’s most loyal and fearsome bodyguard, Okoye. In a lesser movie, an overly serious warrior woman such as Okoye could have been totally one-dimensional, but Gurira finds the character’s softer side, to the point where one of the film’s most pivotal moments rests on her decision to either follow her heart or do as her duty dictates. As incredible as Nyong’o and Gurira are though, it’s Letitia Wright’s who makes the biggest splash as T’Challa’s spirited young sister Shuri. A scientific genius, Shuri is Q to T’Challa’s James Bond, only about one hundred times cooler. Even though Shuri doesn’t go out into the field like her brother — although she does get involved in one of the film’s standout action scenes in a very creative way — she occupies a similar space in T’Challa in that she’s someone who rejects the outdated aspects of her culture while embracing its best parts in hopes of making it better.

In truth, Marvel has always excelled at casting but Black Panther feels like a new high watermark (not counting the Avengers films) for the studio, as the film’s group of predominately African and African-American actors are uniformly excellent. Black Panther is stacked with both relative newcomers (Get Out’s Academy Award-nominee Daniel Kaluuya in a supporting role as T’Challa’s second-in-command, W’Kabi) and veterans (Angela Bassett and Forest Whitaker as Ramonda and Zuri, respectively), but it’s Michael B. Jordan’s almost transcendent performance as Black Panther’s main villain that will likely be its most heavily-discussed character. Jordan previously collaborated with Ryan Coogler on 2015’s sensational Creed and the pair strike gold again here with a performance that sees Jordan playing against type.

Marvel Studios

There was nothing in Black Panther’s marketing to suggest that Jordan would be playing anything other than one of the one-note villains that have become synonymous with the Marvel brand, but Erik Killmonger is easily among the greatest antagonists the MCU has produced thus far. One could write several essays on the way that Black Panther employs Killmonger to explore themes such as legacy, power, class warfare, and even the diaspora of African-Americans as a whole. Even though a name like”Killmonger” leaves little doubt as to the ultimate moral alignment of Jordan’s character, Black Panther never fully embraces the idea that he’s an outright villain, unlike the film’s other big bad Ulysses Klaw (a wonderfully unhinged Andy Serkis), who seems to delight in being evil for the fun of it. Killmonger is a much more difficult character to pin down and while Black Panther could have benefited from digging even deeper into his sympathetic side, it’s nice to finally be able to point to a character other than Loki when someone says that the MCU has no good villains.

While no movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe is a truly standalone affair, Black Panther comes closer than any previous franchise entry in feeling unburdened by its shared universe connections. The most prominent tie-in feature comes in the form of Martin Freeman’s CIA man Everett Ross, who like Black Panther himself was also introduced in Captain America: Civil War. Freeman is the kind of actor that enhances anything he’s in (hello Hobbit trilogy) and even though he’s as great as ever here, the movie never quite conveys a compelling narrative reason for him to be in it. It’s almost as if Coogler and script co-writer Joe Robert Cole had to hit a one tie-in character quota and found the one that would feel the least intrusive. That’s mostly a good thing, mind you, as it’s a testament to how strong the rest of Black Panther is that an actor of Freeman’s caliber feels like the weakest link, but it’s still disappointing that the shared universe connections end up being so distracting and inconsequential, especially considering how well T’challa was incorporated into Civil War.

Marvel Studios

The first Black Panther trailer opened with Everett Ross claiming that he had “never seen anything like this.” While that line is meant to convey the astounding beauty and wonder of Wakanda, it can also be interpreted as a mission statement of sorts for the film as a whole. There truly hasn’t been a superhero movie quite like Black Panther before and indeed, there have been few major studio productions that have accomplished what Ryan Coogler’s film does. Like other Marvel Studios productions, Black Panther has enough surface level entertainment to be a hit with mass audiences, but this is also a “popcorn flick” in The Dark Knight tradition, in that it isn’t afraid to dig deeper and try to engage viewers on an emotional and thematic level. Much like what Wonder Woman did for female representation last year, Black Panther’s representation of black people and culture is an important step forward that feels long overdue. Black Panther may not rewrite the script on superhero filmmaking — in fact, it follows a very familiar narrative formula in many respects — but it does show that Marvel isn’t content to rest on its laurels. A decade into the MCU experiment, Marvel has delivered its most important (and one of its best) films. How many other franchises can make that claim?

9
Incredible
Equal parts inspiring and entertaining, Black Panther is a superhero movie not afraid to sink its teeth into some weighty dramatic territory to get its point across.

Follow me on Twitter at Nick_Steinberg.