The first time I watched a film in the MCU, I was in a dollar theater in Sarasota. I had heard “Iron Man” was great, exciting, and something new. To be honest, I straight up did not care. To my knowledge, “Iron Man” was a kind of boring song by Black Sabbath. In 2008, if the comic book movie wasn’t “The Dark Knight,” I didn’t care. Yet a decade after the beginning of the MCU, the franchise has redefined itself for the 5th time in its history. “Black Panther” is the masterpiece of the franchise. It’s a moment in cinema and a cultural phenomenon that may prove to be as integral a moment in American pop culture as “Star Wars” release in 1977. It’s too soon to tell, but there’s no doubt that this is a victory lap that cements Marvel’s dominance in the modern marketplace.

The film begins and ends with the direction of Ryan Coogler. Coogler, who is an Oakland native, is best known for having director “Fruitvale Station” and “Creed” over the past few years. As with those films, Coogler breathes life into a highly emotional feature rooted in his own struggles with identity. Coogler’s media appearances in the last few weeks have confirmed his search for what it means to black and African-American in the modern world. What does that culture look like, and how do black men and women in America get in touch with an ancestry that was taken from them? This DNA fuels the film, bringing an authentic brilliance to screen that is electric with mythology and culture. Coogler has harnessed the American mythology of superheroes and channeled it to answer questions that are much bigger than his own.

This is really what makes “Black Panther” special in ways that other films is this franchise simply can’t achieve. “Guardians of the Galaxy” might be the closest to defining pop culture and nostalgia in America, even if only for a very specific generation.  “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” may have been more relevant to our political landscape than we realized. The themes of conspiracy, paranoia, and distrust in institutions that has shown itself to be deeply rooted in this country. Yet these films still deal with known concepts, ones that have been examined in other films before. No film released by a major movie studio has focused so extensively on the African diaspora “Black Panther.” Let alone a film of this budget, that took home $250 million in its opening four days. To ignore this aspect of the film is a disservice to what Coogler and his incredible cast and crew accomplished.

Speaking of which, let’s jump into that work. Whether we’re watching T’Challa, his warriors, or even extras, the screen pops with the costumes of a diverse world. They are simply astounding, and designer Ruth E. Carter is likely your favorite to take the Oscar next year. Rachel Morrison, fresh off becoming the first female cinematographer for “Mudbound,” continues her momentum with some great work. Her use of a color palette is to be commended, painting a skyline as if she’s Monet. Do I even need to get started on the Kendrick Lamar-led soundtrack? Many of the best rap and hip-hop artists in the world found their way onboard, leaving a question of whether or not the film can grab multiple song nominations. Finally, the production design is just unreal. It brings Wakanda to life, making you wish you could sample the street meat and flavors of this realized world.

Chadwick Boseman leads the film as T’Challa, and he delivers again. T’Challa is torn here, and his growth is essential to its power. Boseman can also channel emotion in gripping ways, using his eyes to suck you into his moods in and emotions better than almost any actor today. However, this is an ensemble film through and through. The characters in this film bounce off the screen and should be one of the great star creating films of its generation. No one takes a scene off, and the mixture of veterans with the next great stars has set up an exciting cross-section of talent.

Lupita Nyong’o and Danai Gurira are the first that come to mind as Nakia and Okoye respectively. Nyong’o has already got an Oscar, but this role gives her the showcase that allows her to be equal parts action heroine, self-driven woman, and romantic lead. Gurira has many of the films most iconic fight sequences, further cementing her badass persona from “The Walking Dead” as more than a one show wonder. Letitia Wright is also a joy. Coogler’s focus on tech in the film allows her to contribute to the film as the smartest person in the room, while also being the least mature.

My favorite sequences of the film come from Michael B. Jordan, who owns the film in a raw and emotional performance that pops off the screen. Jordan plays Erik Killmonger, an American soldier who wants Wikanda to change its ways. His method, essentially slashing and burning the world, would seem underdeveloped in lesser hands. His motivations, on the other hand, ground the film in a place where the audience is undeniably connected to his path. Jordan absolutely draws every breath out of this character, placing himself between Loki and Ledger’s Joker in the supervillain Hall of Fame. Jordan may not always be sympathetic, but moments in this film establish why he has more upside than almost any actor working today.

The rest of the cast is putting in extraordinary work. Angela Bassett is strong and brave in the face of her life coming apart. Martin Freeman is the perfect link to the larger world while shepherding the audience into the awe of Wakanda. Winston Duke represents another challenger to Boseman both through physical intimidation and legitimate political charisma. Sterling K. Brown simply tears down the walls around him, making it clear he is a once-in-a-generation talent that only needs 10 minutes to make an impact. Hell, the fact that Daniel Kaluuya, a man currently nominated for Best Actor at the Oscars for his brilliant turn in “Get Out,” is the last actor I’m talking about should really tell you about this film’s greatness. He (of course) is also superb as W’Kabi, a man who wants to leave the world better than he found it. He just doesn’t know how to do that. It’s a conflicted character that adds to the tension and ultimately gives the film more stakes as it progresses.

Last, the actual script of “Black Panther” is a masterstroke in its own right. The discussions being held in this film, globalism versus isolationism, feels tailored to our modern world. I’m not dumb enough to believe this is coincidence, and I’d be surprised if our reader’s felt that way. The film takes on the Trump-ian world, and you can feel the struggle written into the dialogue. Yet, fixing the discussion between our heroes is an interesting twist, one that is both rhetorically significant, and serves the story well. While the film is never asking its audience to build a wall, there’s something to be said about tearing them down. While it may not be as politically relevant as something like “Get Out,” the fact that a character in this film tells another that he should be thrown into the ocean like his “ancestors before him,” tells you it is not pulling its punches.

Overall, the film may finish for some outside of their personal top Marvel films, but there’s little denying it’s accomplishment. This is a film that is as focused on the statements it can make about our modern, as it is about where we are going. This hopefulness is what binds audiences to T’Challa’s story, and makes the narrative so much more. Coogler is a director that may make better films than this one, but it will be hard to ever envision a world where he creates something so meaningful to so many people. This may be considered his opus, but there’s plenty more to expect in the years to come.

GRADE: (★★★½)

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