Starring: Chadwick Boseman, Lupita Nyong’o

Directed by Ryan Coogler

Running Time 2hr 15min, PG-13

My Rating: A

Having provided us with more than a decade’s worth of action movies starring blonde dudes named Chris, I’m glad Marvel’s decided to start the year with a movie that isn’t totally throwaway. The company’s latest canon entry, “Black Panther” (2018), is one for the history books: It’s the first Marvel feature to be directed by a black filmmaker, the first to almost exclusively star black actors, and the first to primarily employ black costume and production designers.

That “Black Panther” has become part of the superhero zeitgeist nearly a decade after it became commonplace in popular culture is a question mark, especially considering how many sequels Gwyneth Paltrow’s been able to make a living off. Black Panther is visually splendorous, action-packed, and socially conscious genre pasturage that trades Marvel’s usual breeziness for substance.

The movie takes place shortly after the lackluster “Captain America: Civil War” (2016), and involves the African prince T’Challa’s (Chadwick Boseman) assumption of the “Black Panther” title of his native Wakanda following his father’s death.

The intricacies of Wakanda, and this particular title, are best explained by an early sequence. Wakanda is a covert, technologically advanced African nation which survives off a powerful metal called Vibranium; the Black Panther is a superhuman warrior who uses that Vibranium to protect his people from the threats of outsiders and local foes alike.

In the movie, our paramount threat comes in the form of the Michael B. Jordan-portrayed Erik Killmonger, a wronged cousin of T’Challa and co. who seeks to overthrow the rather utopian Wakanda. Determined and ruthless, he wants to utilize the region’s natural and technological resources to rewrite society as we know it – an ambition that, when explained, is clearly an aftereffect of understandable frustration.

The feature goes through the motions of the usual good-conquers-evil storyline. But like everything else in the film, much about it marks a detour from the norm. Part of our villain’s anger has to do with the oppressions he’s faced as a black man; the struggles our hero faces just as he reaches the top subtly mirrors how people of color so often have to work miles harder to get to positions of power. And Wakanda is a character in itself, a plush dreamworld in which black excellence is mighty and boundless command isn’t unattainable.

In “Black Panther,” the action is great and so are the comedic flourishes. But what’s so invigorating about the film is that it is so celebratory of its black identity while still smartly paying attention to the setbacks and obstacles that come with it.

The actors are just as lucid. Featuring big names (Angela Bassett, Lupita Nyong’o, Michael B. Jordan, Boseman, Forest Whitaker), luminous newcomers (Daniel Kaluuya, Letitia Wright), and soon-to-be-huge veterans (Danai Gurira), not a star is wasted, with many giving performances exquisite enough to start new chapters in their respective filmographies.

But what isn’t great in “Black Panther”? When so many products to come out of the superhero woodwork desire to only superficially entertain us for a couple hours without doing much else, this particular film deviates from the increasingly predictable norm. It’s Marvel’s most conscientious, and important, work to date. And, just a handful of weeks into February, one of the best movies of the year. Don’t miss the Kendrick Lamar-curated soundtrack, either.

A student at the University of Washington, Blake will major in Visual Communications or Journalism.

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