In many ways, "Black Panther" is the most important film that has been made so far in the Marvel Comics-inspired film universe. The importance isn't something as simplistic as this being the first major superhero motion picture where the central hero is black. Where the film distinguishes itself is that's just part of a broader perspective that encompasses examinations of politics, social strife, isolationism, family, the redefining of gender roles and what it means to be a hero.
Don't panic. All of this gets delivered with the usual massive fights, action sequences and major explosions that have become a hallmark of a Marvel movie. The difference is the action isn't used as a way to skirt around some lofty ploy point, but as an exclamation mark on what is being said and done.
The script by director Ryan Coogler ("Fruitvale Station") and Joe Robert Cole shows there's room for both brain and brawn when it comes to the genre. There's a maturity to their story that's a major leap forward for a Marvel movie in both respecting the audience and the material.
"Black Panther" begins in the wake of the bombing in "Captain America: Civil War" that killed King T'Chaka (John Kani). After the death of his father, T'Challa (Chadwick Boseman) returns home to the isolated, technologically advanced African nation of Wakanda to take his rightful place as king. The transition is threatened from outside forces who want to get their hands on the country's most valuable asset, vibranium.
But, it's the internal struggle that shakes the country. Another contender for the throne, Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), arrives with a determination to take control and use the country's assets to start a revolution around the globe.
A typical action movie would have settled for the deluge of action that comes with such a fight for power. The makers of "Captain America: Civil War" tried to incorporate some higher meaning into the film with the riff created over the importance of control. That philosophical element eventually got overpowered by the huge fight sequences and action scenes. Even the "Thor" movies have touched on the struggle between brothers but in the end, the productions also gave into the power of the fist.
"Black Panther" is driven by major issues. T'Challa by definition is the hero of the story, but there's a serious question posed as to why his country has huddled in its world of wealth and major advancements while the rest of the world struggled. Killmonger's plan as to how to open up the world has touches of extremism but at least the two major players have been given well-defined philosophies to support.
Even the way Black Panther is presented shows a more mature approach to the film franchise. Unlike a Tony Stark who can entertain with his dry wit or Captain America who dazzles with his passion for patriotism, Boseman must play both T'Challa as a man of great reserve. He's a warrior, but one who rules the screen with a quiet calm.
Coogler balances this with a host of strong supporting players, particularly Letitia Wright as T'Challa's sister, Shuri. Not only is she the most brilliant mind in the country, Shuri's rebellious nature makes her fun to watch. How important she is can be best seen when she's onscreen with Boseman. She provides the light elements of humor that help keep the Marvel movies from being too serious.
It's also a major accomplishment that Wright's character is just one of a host of strong female characters in the film. From her strong intellect to the tenacity of T'Challa's all-female guard, this is the first Marvel movie to stresses this level of importance in strong female characters. There have been a few strong female characters in past films, the most notable being Black Widow, but no past work even comes close to the forward thinking of "Black Panther."
All of this is very positive for the franchise, but "Black Panther" does have its problems. Coogler gets a little bogged down with scenes to the point where they begin to edge toward the tedious. There's a massive car chase scene where Black Panther gets to show off his skills that should have stopped a few miles sooner. And, much of where the film is headed is telegraphed so loudly it almost drowns out critical dialogue. Take note. If a character in a movie spends a long time explaining how a piece of equipment works, you can be certain the machinery will become an important part of the story.
The final battle also feels slightly rushed as sides are taken for the climatic confrontation. For a movie that spends so much time talking about the importance of the royal family, loyalty by the subjects and the generations of support being shown by the tribes, Coogler forces the action with minimal explanation. There's some, but this is a major turning point and should have been given more time to grow and expand.
It would be enough to herald "Black Panther" because of how it prominently features a black superhero. This has been softened just a bit because Marvel's "Luke Cage" broke that ground with the TV series, but "Black Panther" is still a major move forward.
The film is so much more. Coogler's willingness to deal with major social and political issues elevates the movie. Couple that with a superb cast, stunning cinematography by Rachel Morrison and dazzling costuming by Ruth E. Carter and "Black Panther" has a grasp as strong as vibranium on making this such an important action movie.
Cast: Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong'o, Danai Gurira, Angela Bassett, Forest Whitaker, Martin Freeman.
Director: Ryan Coogler.
Rated: PG-13 for violence.
Running time: 135 minutes.
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.