All hail “Black Panther”

Nutshell: Fabulous performances, fabulous soundtrack, fabulous visuals. And a story with ideas that’ll have you contemplating what goes on in the world – and your backyard – long after the end credits. Go. Grade: A

“Just because something works doesn’t mean it can’t be improved.”

Story: T’Challa, prince of the African nation of Wakanda, must take the mantle of King ‘- and Wakandan guardian Black Panther – after his father’s death. However, his father’s actions in the past have consequences that affect the young king.

Genre I’d put it in: Kickass Cinematic Universe Game-Changers

Remake, Sequel, Based-On, or Original: Based on the comic book series of the same name. Part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Gotta say: I’ve been stoked about this movie ever since I heard that they were bringing Wakanda – and its people – into the MCU. I was more stoked about this film than I’ve been about the upcoming Infinity War. Why? Because Ryan Coogler (Creed, Fruitvale Station) would be at the helm. Because the cast is jam-packed with amazing actors. And let’s face it; I love black cats. I cannot lie.

Black Panther not only met my incredibly overblown expectations, it exceeded them. This film is the best the MCU has put out, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the original Iron Man. I’m not blowing smoke here, Panther is just that good. Sure, the MCU delivers fun films, but as the quote above (from Panther character Shuri) states, improvements are fantastic.

Let’s start with the basics, shall we? There’s the cast. As T’Challa/Black Panther, Chadwick Boseman continues his ability to focus attention on him in every scene he’s in. His T’Challa’s presence, intellect, and charisma leap off the screen, mostly because Boseman leaves it on a low burn. This isn’t a bombastic ruler. It’s a ruler who is comfortable in his own skin, willing to sacrifice whatever he must for his people, and even with his doubts and fears, steps up to whatever challenge presents itself.

Then there’s my favorite character of the film, T’Challa’s tech genius sister, Shuri (Letitia Wright, Humans). Shuri’s the adorable love child of James Bond’s “Q” and Tony Stark, with a charming smile that belies the incredible brain power she effortlessly wields. From designing her brother’s suit (complete with upgrade after upgrade, ala Mr. Stark) to designing machines that can repair seemingly irreparable bodily injuries, I all but bounced in my seat every time she came on screen.

Writer/director Coogler has given Shuri a cheeky sense of humor, which is a refreshing change from her “why so serious?” countenance in the comics. And that humor serves to strengthen the sibling bond between Shuri and her brother. Plus, Boseman and Wright have a nice onscreen chemistry that sells their bond. It’s great to see them together, and when they’re “working” together? I forgot about my popcorn.

Speaking of working together, Lupita Nyong’o (12 Years A Slave) and Danai Gurira (The Walking Dead) play Nakia and Okoye respectively. Nakia is a childhood friend of T’Challa (and was even more, for a brief time), and Okoye is a member of the royal guard who is committed to the royal family. They’re the buddies here, working together, and coming together when it counts.

Angela Bassett (loving her on 9-1-1 right now) plays their mother Ramonda, a former queen who is mourning the loss of her husband even as she’s having to face the changes in Wakanda. In real life, Bassett could wear a burlap sack and be regal, but here she owns the role. As with Boseman, hers is a quiet power, one that is so strong that she has no need to wield it indiscriminately, but woe to those who mess with her or her people. Seriously – can we have a “Women of Wakanda” film? I’d watch that. I’d buy the damn Blu-ray.

Beyond the talent these women have onscreen, there’s a strong message of gender equality and acceptance in Panther. Women are on equal footing with their male counterparts. In fact, the royal guard of Wakanda is all female. But it’s not just that; they have the power of choice. From the get-go, it’s obvious that T’Challa would love it if Nakia would stay in Wakanda. But her calling leads her out of her country, and she makes no bones about it. She’s not a comic book girly who’s just sitting around waiting for The Hero to save her. Even though she’s got no formal training, when the inevitable movie showdown hits, she suits up and fights for what she believes in. Okoye’s strong moral code stays with her, even when things go sideways for T’Challa and his nation. It would make comic-book sense to have her blow with the wind, but she remains strong in her beliefs, and nobody questions it. That’s damn impressive.

Coogler’s muse, Michael B. Jordan, is the Big Bad here…but wait just a minute. His Erik Killmonger isn’t some raving lunatic. He’s got serious problems with the world, and with Wakanda. There are wrongs he’s trying to right, both personal and of the world, and so Killmonger can’t be shrugged off as many of the usual comic book and movie villains. His concerns are justifiable ones, ones that you’ll be pondering long after the end credits roll.

(Speaking of end credits, stay in your seat ’til the fat lady sings. Because there are two end credit tidbits to be found here. One at around the start of the credits, and the other at the very end. You wont’ want to miss ’em.)

All of this amazing characterization and #metoo sensibility is wrapped up in a lovely package. Academy Award nominee Rachel Morrison (Mudbound) delivers stunning cinematography, with images crisp and clean, even in 3D. Morrison’s use of color and lighting makes things pop. And there’s a lot to pop, from Hanna Beachler’s (Moonlight) detailed set design to those breathtaking costumes by Ruth E. Carter (Malcolm X). Now, I’ve tried my best not to talk about the plot of this film, because even starting to will spoil a whole lot, and I don’t want to do that to you. But I’ll say this, regarding the special effects: BATTLE RHINOS HELLZ YEA Y’ALL!

Badass warrior women. A charismatic leader who does what’s best. A villain that makes you think about what’s really right and wrong. Questions that make you think, and wonder how you yourself can do better, be better for your world. And a Stan Lee cameo. How can you go wrong? Spoiler: you can’t.

#Protip: If you’re as much of a costuming nerd as I am, you’ll want to read this Carter interview over at The Ringer on how she designed the costumes for Black Panther.

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