‘Black Panther’ takes Marvel universe to new heights

This image released by Disney shows a scene from Marvel Studios' "Black Panther." (Matt Kennedy/Marvel Studios-Disney via AP)

The Marvel Cinematic Universe is full of compelling characters and well-told stories, but their latest film launches the franchise — and the superhero genre in general — into the stratosphere.

“Black Panther” is a revelation in basically every way. It takes the basic superhero plotline and makes it both more intimate and more epic.

“Black Panther” follows T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), the king of the African nation of Wakanda and the nation’s protector, the Black Panther. To the outside world, Wakanda looks like a third-world country, but it turns out that the country, made up of several tribes, has been hiding its superior technology and its huge supply of rare vibranium. However, King T’Challa must make a decision about the future of Wakanda when a Wakandan artifact is stolen and Erik “Killmonger” Stevens (Michael B. Jordan) shows up.

T’Challa’s story is the heart of the film, and it’s incredibly compelling. While T’Challa, as the ruler of Wakanda, is certainly challenged by outside influences, the film really follows his inner journey as he ascends to the throne and tries to protect Wakanda. His struggles are particularly timely, too. T’Challa, challenged by his ex-girlfriend Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), struggles with his desire to help the world while also keeping his isolationist nation safe and prosperous — sound a little familiar?

I am also confident in saying that Killmonger is one of the best superhero movie villains I’ve ever seen. I can’t reveal exactly why — it would spoil some of the most wrenching twists in the film — but I have rarely felt so much empathy for a villain. While he is clearly a Bad Guy, his motivations are understandable, and he’s played with so much depth by Michael B. Jordan that it’s hard not to feel for him.

T’Challa is also surrounded by men and women — but especially women — who are well-rounded and interesting characters in their own right. I would watch an entire movie just about the Dora Milaje, the Wakandan special forces led by Okoye (Danai Gurira). I would also watch a spin-off series about T’Challa’s sister, Shuri, a tech genius in the vein of Tony Stark and Peter Parker, but cooler. There’s also his mother, Ramonda (Angela Bassett); M’Baku (Winston Duke), the leader of a tribe opposing T’Challa; Everett Ross (Martin Freeman), a CIA agent who gets pulled into the conflict; and W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya), one of T’Challa’s best friends. That doesn’t even get into all of the extras who fit into different tribes and different roles throughout the film.

“Black Panther” shines because its characters are so compelling, but it’s also incredible because it does such an amazing job of world-building. Wakanda is an Afrofuturist delight; I got goosebumps when the city first appeared on the screen. The film takes architecture, clothing, hairstyles,and art from various African cultures and infuses them with modern technology to create a world that many of us have never seen before.

“Black Panther” is an entertaining film, but it’s also an important film. I subscribe to the idea that stories — experienced as books, movies, TV shows, and more — should sometimes be mirrors, that reflect our experiences back to ourselves, and sometimes windows, that give us a look into somebody else’s world. I also believe that everybody should be able to see themselves as the heroes of stories, and that it’s important that the people who have seen themselves as heroes in stories the most often get to see that other people are heroes, too. “Black Panther” is a “window” movie for me, where I got to step into Wakanda and get a glimpse at the dreams of a strong, vibrant Africa untouched by the ravages of colonization and the slave trade. And it’s a chance to see black men and women in a role they are rarely cast in — as heroes of their own stories.

Of course, many people aren’t going to think that deeply when they see “Black Panther,” and you don’t have to in order to enjoy the film. It’s a highly entertaining, incredibly well-made movie that raises the bar for superhero movies, whether you think about the implications of a superhero movie with a majority black cast or not. But “Black Panther” plays double duty, both as an important film, and as a darn good one.

Jenny’s Take: See it tonight.

(Rated PG-13 for prolonged sequences of action violence, and a brief rude gesture. Runs 134 minutes.)

Jenny Kobiela-Mondor writes movie reviews for KPC Media Group. Her columns are posted at kpcnews.com/opinion/columnists. A link to her blog can be found from her columns at kpcnews.com. She blogs at jenandkel poptarts.blogspot.com.

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