Barring some major and wholly unexpected change, I suspect that Black Panther is the best film Marvel Studios is capable of making right now, and will never be topped in the future. That's not really much of a compliment, though it's enough to make me (with some vague resentment and suspicion that I'll regret it later) boost this review up to four stars instead of three and a half. This is why you never trust a critic's numerical ratings, kids.

But anyway, Black Panther comes as close as a film possibly can to sloughing off all of the problems that persistently  cling to this franchise. It is, first and most importantly, entirely free from explicit advertisements for the next however many movies in the series, except for the second post-credits scene that you can easily ignore. It also doesn't really have any connections to the seventeen films that have preceded it, at least not ones that get in the way; the story takes places in the weeks immediately following 2016's Captain America: Civil War, and events from that film fuel this film's plot, but they're all presented such that you can make perfect sense of them in context, without any sense that it's a sequel. Instead, the film's story is limited entirely to what affects these characters at this time.

It's also a film that has actual ideas about society in its head, something that comic book movies generally and MCU films particularly try to avoid - I have my own private thoughts about how those ideas actually play out, but I will not be sharing those thoughts in public, now or later, because I am a white person - and it dials back on the flippant, trivialising humor (though it does not do away with it altogether; in fact, while Black Panther has fewer jokes than just about any other Marvel movie, most of the ones it has are very bad). Best of all, it was designed. Eighteen films in, most of them made with the limitless financial resources of Disney, and the only Marvel films that have looked like they take place in any particular kind of world at all are Guardians of the Galaxy and its sequel, and parts of Thor: Ragnarok. And for all three of the, that particular world is a CGI visualisation of the feverish pulpy landscapes of comic book artist Jack Kirby. Black Panther takes place in our world, and its florid science-fiction touches are very thoughtfully conceived so as to suggest how they evolved out of real artistic traditions from East Africa (this aesthetic, which the film does not invent, is part of a broader trend from the middle-late 20th Century known as Afro-Futurism; Black Panther is the very first time it has ever been seen in a big-budget movie, or possibly any movie at all).

Simply put: Hannah Beacher's production design and Ruth Carter's costume designs are the two best things to happen to the superhero genre since Heath Ledger's Joker. The costumes, in particular, are damn near revelatory, showcasing an utterly non-Western sensibility about lines, hues, function, and even textiles, to create striking and energising blocks of fluid color in motion, both in action scenes and dialogue. Oh, that's another thing: the film's use of color is amazing. Many and many scene is pleasurable to look at just in terms of how director Ryan Coogler and cinematographer Rachel Morrison compose fields of contrasting colors, both in the sets and costumes, arranged to create larger patterns and structure that may or may not mean anything, but they're damn sure pretty to look at.

All of this is enough to make Black Panther easily the best Marvel movie since what's increasingly looking like the unbeatable banner year of 2014, when Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Guardians of the Galaxy both came out. That it's no better than that comes down largely to all the parts of the Marvel formula it couldn't shake off: crappy action (a great disappointment, given how excellent the fight scenes were in Coogler's last film, Creed; this is another reason I think this is the best-possible Marvel movie, since we now have a concrete demonstration of how the house style limits the second-best director any of these films have ever had; Taika Waititi is the first-best, but one gets the feeling that he had to compromise with Ragnarok more than Coogler did here), CGI that shouldn't be nearly as suspicious as it is given Disney's resources, and the same boring, anonymously busy final act that most of these movies have, where the hero has to fight a villain that shares his exact skill set while we cross-cut to poorly-edited aerial battles.

Outside of the typically dreary climax, the script, which Coogler co-wrote with Joe Robert Cole, is a perfectly solid, well above-average first film for a titular superhero (it is not, properly speaking, an "origin story"). If the structure and narrative beats are largely familiar, the setting is not, and the characters are flat-out great: T'Challa (Chadwick Boseman), prince and now king of the hidden nation of Wakanda, was already the best part of Civil War, and he has been significantly deepened here, and given an enormously impressive supporting cast. Lupita Nyong'o brings a level of distinctive personality to an entirely functional "the hero's ex-girlfriend" part, and Letitia Wright is marvelously energetic as T'Challa's science-guru younger sister, but the most obvious standout, to me, is Danai Gurira as the leader of Wakanda's royal guard. I gather that she has made a splash on TV in the five years since her wonderful performance in Mother of George, but I've seen none of it, and her return to cinema in such a dominant, imposing physical performance, mildly undercut with the wry, amused facial expressions she sports throughout, is wildly gratifying. The odds are never stacked in favor of African-American actresses, but if Black Panther's massive box-office doesn't lead to Gurira getting good roles in big films, we truly do live in a fallen world.

The other major force in the cast is the only actor to have appeared in all of Coogler's features, Michael B. Jordan, who plays the villain with a typically rote secret backstory, Erik "Killmonger" Stevens. The part as written is a fascinating slurry: an immensely sympathetic figure whose anger at systemic violence has curdled into an angry incapacity to be anything other than violent, an anti-imperialist who wants to establish an empire. One gets the distinct sense that the writers weren't entirely sure how much they agree with the character, and it is perhaps an irony that a movie titled Black Panther should be so skittish about revolutionary violence. Still and all, Jordan is superb in the part, and between the character's complexity and Jordan's laconic, loose-limbed performance - a glorious jolt of ambling, shaggy humanity that feels living and unplanned in ways that these massive-budget Disney productions rarely get to - Killmonger is almost certainly the best villain in any MCU film to date, if not even among the best comic book movies ever (the terminus ad quem is, as ever, "is this the best villain since The Dark Knight?" and I believe that he is).

So all in all, pretty damn good - a theoretical maximum, as I said, though one that more shows up the hard limits of the Marvel formula than one that demonstrates its strengths. At the very least, it feels like its own thing, narratively, psychologically, thematically, and most obviously in the chord it strikes with a starving audience. If we must continue to get these movies, let them all be so individualised and self-confident.

Reviews in this series
Iron Man (Favreau, 2008)
The Incredible Hulk (Leterrier, 2008)
Iron Man 2 (Favreau, 2010)
Thor (Branagh, 2011)
Captain America: The First Avenger (Johnston, 2011)
The Avengers (Whedon, 2012)
Iron Man 3 (Black, 2013)
Thor: The Dark World (Taylor, 2013)
Captain America: The Winter Soldier (Russo Brothers, 2014)
Guardians of the Galaxy (Gunn, 2014)
Avengers: Age of Ultron (Whedon, 2015)
Ant-Man (Reed, 2015)
Captain America: Civil War (Russo Brothers, 2016)
Doctor Strange (Derrickson, 2016)
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (Gunn, 2017)
Spider-Man: Homecoming (Watts, 2017)
Thor: Ragnarok (Waititi, 2017)
Black Panther (Coogler, 2018)