Review: 'Black Panther' shows that the Marvel Universe still has teeth

The long-awaited, highly-anticipated "Black Panther" has finally arrived, and it lives up to the hype.

With it, a renewed sense of much-needed vigor is injected into the Marvel Movie Universe. Believe it or not, "Black Panther" is now the 18th Marvel movie to hit theaters since 2008's "Iron Man," the film that kicked off the modern Marvel movie era. Much has been discussed about the so-called Marvel "formula" that has led to the amazing success of these movies, where our favorite superheros fend off threat after threat, mixing in big-name actors and actresses in the roles of the several iconic comic book characters that have been re-imagined for the big-screen. At its most potent, this formula has tapped into the most universally-loved aspects of these revered characters and has come with a sense of purpose and consequence to their stories...all the while poking fun at itself and relying on humor to keep audience's interest (there is nothing more drab or annoying than a superhero who takes themselves too seriously).

And if that is the litmus test - staying true to the virtues of the original character, infusing said character's story with real consequence and remembering to keep things light enough to be entertaining and fun - then "Black Panther" has just become the valedictorian of the Marvel Universe. It checks all of these boxes, and is the best Marvel movie since...well...maybe since they started making them (taking nothing away from the original "Avengers" and "Guardians of the Galaxy" movies).

On the surface even, all of the main elements you would hope to see are present in "Black Panther": A heroic figure at the center that we root for and care about? Check. A story that, while not groundbreaking, is at least coherently told and feels unique? Check. A great villain? Check. Enough twists, turns and surprises to keep audiences engaged through the final credits (and beyond)? Check. Yes, as a character in "Black Panther" even says, "Just because something works doesn't mean it can't be improved upon." This is the mantra of the "Black Panther" film and its place in the Marvel Universe.

The only time we've previously seen the screen-version of T'Challa aka Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) was in 2016's "Captain America: Civil War," where he sided with Tony Stark against Cap and his superhero brethren. The events of that film sets this film in motion, but "Black Panther" - for the first time in a LONG time in this universe - feels like its own movie, its own story, and not just another "chapter" in the never-ending larger saga. Featuring a stellar cast (with Boseman, Lupita Nyong'o, Danai Gurira, Martin Freeman, Letitia Wright, Daniel Kaluuya, Forest Whitaker, Angela Bassett, Sterling K. Brown, Andy Serkis) the movie is just as much about a place as it is a person. The (fictional) African nation of Wakanda was made up of five tribes when generations ago it was struck (blessed?) with a meteor launched from the cosmos. The meteor was made of a substance called Vibranium, the most powerful substance in the galaxy, and Wakandans were able to harness its energy. Keeping this secret from the rest of the planet (by cloaking their entire utopia from the outside world), Wakanda has developed into a highly-sophisticated technological wonderland. The tribes (save one rebellious faction) have united behind their King, known as Black Panther, a mantle that is passed down like a crown through "royal" bloodlines.

T'Challa has become the newest Black Panther, but must protect his nation from a major outside threat: Erik Killmonger (a fantastic Michael B. Jordan) is a Wakandan that grew up on the streets of LA, displaced by his father (Sterling K. Brown) who was illegally selling his country's Vibranium supply to a shady arms dealer (Andy Serkis). Killmonger cannot believe that the Wakandan Empire has stayed silent and invisible for decades, while "their people" in the outside world were subjected to such persecution, racism, segregation and slavery. He has a point, and figures that enough is enough: It is time that Wakanda fights back and equips black men and women of Earth to fight back against those that have kept them down for centuries. T'Challa learns that the errors of his empire's past can either be repeated, or he can use them to inform what the future holds for his people and for the rest of civilization. It's very intriguing because Killmonger has every right to feel his anger, but the film suggests that anger and hatred may not be the best way to fight back against injustices.

It should not and cannot be understated that Black Panther - introduced back in 1966 (and created by the legends Stan Lee and Jack Kirby) - was the first superhero of African descent. For an entire generation of African-American children, Black Panther represented the first time that black children could see themselves in an otherwise white-washed superhero universe. Director Ryan Coogler ("Creed," "Fruitvale Station") takes an important mantle of his own, in trying to honor the legacy of this character and to have Black Panther stand out. T'Challa is much more than just the "black superhero," and the world that Coogler creates makes this character one of the most complex and well-rounded characters in the entirety of the Marvel Universe just one film in. It's the first character in a while that Marvel has introduced that makes you want to see more of him. And truth be told, the main character himself isn't the entire draw: The idea that we may be seeing more stories from this entire Wakandan world, and/or all of its characters, is the most excitement that Marvel has generated in a long time (rest-assured that we will in fact see more, as Boseman had originally signed on for a five picture deal).

"Black Panther" as a film is a wondrous production: It would be impossible to imagine next year's award shows without mention of its many production elements, from production design, to hair and makeup, to costumes. But a special shout-out also to cinematographer Rachel Morrison, who recently received her first-ever Oscar-nomination for her work on Netflix's "Mudbound," for her impressive work on "Black Panther." From Coogler on down, this was a top-notch production, cast and crew, and the results are palpable.

But even more than this, "Black Panther" is a lot of fun. There are elements of the movie that don't work all that well or feel out-of-balance (some moments feel thin and/or rushed, and Jordan's Killmonger is so compelling that he nearly usurps the film's main character), but this is remarkable comic book movie. It is confident and sleek and although the Marvel "formula" is alive and well, "Black Panther" shows that there is room for improvement and growth. It's the best sort of blockbuster: the type that can be enjoyed on the surface as popcorn entertainment, but one with themes that will serve the intellectual's soul as well.

Coogler does the character of "Black Panther" justice, and in doing so has applied a defibrillator to the heart of the Marvel Movie Universe.

Grade: A-

Rated PG-13. 
Genre: Action, Adventure, Sci-Fi. Run Time: 2 hours and 14 minutes. 
Starring: Chadwick Boseman, Lupita Nyong'o, Danai Gurira, Martin Freeman, Letitia Wright, Daniel Kaluuya, Forest Whitaker, Angela Bassett, Sterling K. Brown, Andy Serkis
Co-Written and Directed by Ryan Coogler (""Creed," "Fruitvale Station").

This film opens everywhere on Friday, February 16th, 2018. Check here for showtimes.