T'Challa (Chadwick Boseman) is the new ruler of the advanced kingdom of Wakanda and must defend his land from being torn apart by a mercenary known only as Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) and an insane arms dealer (Andy Serkis).
Given how so many of the complaints levelled against the Marvel Cinematic Universe that it's homogenising cinema and making it more bland, it's heartening to see a film like Black Panther get made. Touted as one of the first black superheroes, Black Panther's had a storied career in comics and was introduced in Captain America: Civil War and played ably by Chadwick Boseman. Naturally, as these things go, an introduction in one film invariably leads a standalone and so it goes with Black Panther.
The opening sequence wraps up any outlying questions newcomers may have about how an African nation managed to keep itself hidden away from the world for so long and not have itself colonised or conquered by invading forces - and where they're getting all the precious vibranium, the wonder-metal that makes up a large part of the story itself. The film's script does a good job aligning Black Panther with the traditions of other superheroes - namely, he's got a technical whizz-kid genius who builds his suits, played by Letitita Wright, a sidekick and possible romantic interest in Lupita Nyong'o, and a bad-ass warrior in Danai Gurira, who plays General Okoye - the fearless leader of the Dora Milaje, the King of Wakanda's personal bodyguard who happen to be all women. Like so many previous Marvel films, genre plays a role and Black Panther skirts between James Bond blockbuster - complete with gadgets and one-liners - and some kind of Shakespearean family drama with Michael B. Jordan's character.
Far and away, Michael B. Jordan's performance as the villain Erik 'Killmonger' Stevens ranks as one of the best in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and manages to convey a seething rage that feels totally justified which ultimately plays into some of Black Panther's more problematic moments. We're supposed to root for Black Panther, understand what he's going through, but the screenplay gives far more effort to making us understand Killmonger's motivations that by the time the finale rolls around, you're not entirely sure who you should be cheering for to win. Granted, this kind of complexity is something that's been sorely missing from the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it makes for an unusual experience watching it.
Still, it's hard to complain when the action and storytelling is this fluid and precise and with a supporting cast of heavy-hitters like Forrest Whittaker, Andy Serkis, Daniel Kaluuya and Martin Freeman. Ryan Coogler, who directed the excellent legacy sequel Creed, knows how to pace and shoot an action sequence and can layer them all with enough emotional context that it has weight and meaning to them. When Killmonger and Black Panther do battle towards the end, it make sense. Sadly, it's let down by some particularly shoddy-looking CGI in what is otherwise a bright, colourful film with some intriguing visual flourishes throughout - particularly a sequence between the deceased father of T'Challa which calls to mind fellow blockbuster-in-Shakespeare clothes The Lion King.
Overall, Black Panther works as an exciting addition to the already-stuffed Marvel Cinematic Universe and has a smart screenplay. Granted, the third act comes with the usual caveats - long, drawn-out CGI that looks a bit cheap in parts - but there's a lot to like about this and makes for a compelling blockbuster with some stand-out performances.