This is one of those "what more needs to be said?" reviews. Everybody who sees Black Panther seems to love it. And why not? It's a satisfying superhero movie. Its majority black cast – most heroic, some villainous, all complex and interesting – answers the prayers of a lot of moviegoers who have been pining for more diversity in the genre. And its being genuinely well-made is a great relief.
Of course what makes Black Panther stand out, even in the consistently solid Marvel Studios output, is its thoughtful inclusion of racial politics. Neither preachy nor soft-pedaled, the story addresses several issues in both the black and white communities that are rarely touched upon by Hollywood blockbusters.
First there is the depiction of the wealthy, self-sufficient, technologically advanced, and unquestionably feminist African nation of Wakanda. It's a poignant fantasy of what might have been, had Africa been untouched by slavery, colonialism, and (it must be said) Islam.
But with that wealth comes secrecy – Black Panther is not about the risk of King T'challa's (Chadwick Boseman) real identity being exposed so much as it is about Wakanda's real identity being exposed – and the film doesn't shy away from the complexities and obligations of being rich and black while so many black people around the world are suffering. (Though this is really an issue for all races.)
It is one of the suffering – a charismatic Oakland criminal nicknamed "Killmonger" (Coogler regular Michael B. Jordan) – who emerges as the chief antagonist, a mass murderer who dreams of revenge against all who have oppressed black people, and who has his eye on Wakanda's unsurpassed weaponry. He's the most effective villain thus far in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, not only because of his quietly terrifying presence but because of the righteous anger at the heart of his crusade. Jordan, who routinely plays nice guys on film and TV, is a genuine revelation here.
In the end, it's still a Marvel movie, closely adhering to the studio's storytelling tropes: surprise betrayals, shifting allegiances, last-minute rescues, and of course the cross-cut third act battle. But there's nothing wrong with that. Meanwhile, the cast is a welcome change from the usual Avengers suspects, especially its litany of smart, strong female characters, and Hannah Beachler's production design is spectacularly original – even Oscar-worthy. Ditto Ruth Carter's costumes.
I did have one issue, and that was with the story's decision to keep Wakanda's true nature concealed from the rest of the world. In the comics, the nation had acquired its wealth as the result of trade, thanks to its rich ores of priceless Vibranium metal. In the film, we are supposed to believe that tiny Wakanda somehow accumulated its untold wealth by trading with... no one. Sorry, but that's not how it works. Still, I can excuse this discrepancy, as the ethical issues it raises in the plot are too good to pass up.