MPAA rating: PG-13 (for prolonged sequences of action violence and a brief rude gesture)
Running time: 2:20
Marvel films pop up with the regularity of iTunes updates, so it's hard to fault even the most dedicated fans for feeling desensitized to their charms.
"Black Panther," Marvel's 18th big-budget comic-book adaptation since 2008, vaults over all of them to become not only the best of the Marvel Cinematic Universe — rivaled only by "Guardians of the Galaxy" — but also one of the most groundbreaking and blood-tingling comic-book flicks of all time.
To mangle an oft-quoted line from Christopher Nolan's "The Dark Knight," it's not simply the film audiences need and deserve, it's the one for which an entire industry has been crying out.
Black superheroes are not groundbreaking in 2018, of course. But Netflix's "Luke Cage," Wesley Snipe's "Blade" and other on-screen examples hardly compare to this gorgeous, effortlessly assured, big-budget pageant directed by Ryan Coogler ("Creed," "Fruitvale Station") and starring Chadwick Boseman.
First introduced in 2016's "Captain America: Civil War," Boseman returns as the self-serious T'Challa, the new king of the secretive and technologically advanced African nation of Wakanda. Inspired by decades of rich, twisting comic-book lore first created by Marvel icons Jack Kirby and Stan Lee, screenwriters Coogler and Joe Robert Cole bend the familiar hero's journey into both topical and fantastical shapes, staying agile amid an obstacle course of subjects and set pieces.
Following the death of his father in a terrorist attack, T'Challa must justify his royal heritage by battling M'Baku, the leader of the Jabari tribe. Five tribes comprise the idealized, cleverly realized nation of Wakanda, which sits in central Africa somewhere between the continent's ancient heritage and a sleek, high-tech present.
Wakanda's wealth springs from vast reserves of the seemingly magical vibranium (the same stuff Captain American's shield is made of) as well as staying hidden from European colonizers over the centuries. But — surprise, surprise — it also makes them a target of the gleefully unhinged arms dealer Ulysess Klaue, played to scene-stealing perfection by Andy Serkis ("Star Wars: The Last Jedi," "The Hobbit").
A flashback to events in Oakland, Calif., in 1992 sets up a mystery that will later come to heartbreaking conclusion, but the film wastes no time introducing its stellar ensemble, starting with deft spy Nakia (Lupito Nyong'o), who also is the object of T'Challa's affection.
Family bonds run strong in Wakanda, as T'Challa's mother, Ramonda (a resplendent, gravitas-toting Angela Bassett), and sister and resident tech genius Shuri (Letitia Wright) alternately guide and redirect his struggles and victories, stripping away ego while suiting him up in advanced crime-fighting gear.
T'Challa travels to South Korea to intercept Klaue, bringing along Nakia and Okoye (Danai Gurira), the leader of the steely, all-female Dora Milaje warriors. After running into CIA agent Everett K. Ross (Martin Freeman), who has his own theories about Klaue's cat-and-mouse game, worlds collide in a brutal, chaotic ballet.
Throughout, Erik Killmonger (a streetwise and arresting Michael B. Jordan) seems to be serving Klaue's ends, but as the film unfurls, a surprising connection to Wakanda adds grim emotional resonance, further driven home by the committed performance of Forest Whitaker as Zuri, a wise tribal elder who hides his own secret.
And those are just the major players. With such narrative complexity, any one shaky piece might seem vulnerable to collapse. But beyond the embarrassment of visual and thematic riches — including costumes bold and brilliant enough to make "Black Panther" the film to beat for the 2019 Oscar for Best Costume Design — events unfold at a determined clip.
Coogler and his team swap the usual brain-bashing and shoot-'em-ups with visceral, hand-to-hand combat, concisely choreographed and coiled until just the right moments. From plotting and visual standpoints, the film borrows liberally from heist flicks, old Hollywood biblical epics, James Bond tech/casino dazzlers and operatic crime dramas, while breaking ground by keeping the camera close and comfortable with the uniformly beautiful faces of its cast.
Characters echo contemporary debates — isolationism vs. interventionism, justice vs. revenge, political duty vs. conscience — but having a mostly black cast allows white audiences (to whom all this Afrofuturism may seem impossibly exotic) to look beyond skin color. In fact, seeing things in black and white is both a literal and figurative danger in the film.
Beyond any of that, there's a riot of imagery that screams out for freeze-frame: diamonds pouring from bullet holes in a leather briefcase; lithe and perfectly lit bodies twirling through air; ancestral visions of color-soaked sunsets and sly predators. A soundtrack that improbably melds skittering hip-hop beats, orchestral cues and tribal drums electrifies the already kinetic scenes.
There's frequent commentary on the troubled state of race relations, both overt and subtle, and it's relevant to the core in a way that unites every scene. "Black Panther" is better and deeper than a simple rebuttal of the Trump Age's resurgent public racism. But it's that, too, and idealistic nearly to a fault.
Like the comics it sprang from, "Black Panther" is also an unusually complicated and socially relevant superhero tale. And yet, as a beacon of representation in this burgeoning golden age of sci-fi and fantasy filmmaking (see "Wonder Woman" and the last couple "Star Wars" films), it's uniquely satisfying popcorn entertainment, a triumphant trifecta of subject matter, talent and timing.