• by Wes Singleton

Black Panther, A-

Rated PG-13, 135 minutes

The long-awaited, thrilling new Marvel superhero film "Black Panther" growls, claws and fights its way to win the fight, packing a big punch along the way. Though not a message film per se, its pertinence carries a lot of weight, not to mention it's a sensational entry in the Marvel Universe, maybe even the best Marvel film ever.

After the death of his father, T'Challa aka Black Panther ("Marshall's" Chadwick Boseman) returns home to the African nation of Wakanda to take his rightful place as king. When a powerful enemy named N'Jadaka aka Killmonger ("Creed's" Michael  B. Jordan) suddenly reappears, T'Challa's mettle as king -- and as Black Panther -- gets tested when he's drawn into a conflict that puts the fate of Wakanda and the entire world at risk. Faced with treachery and danger, the young king must rally his allies and release the full power of Black Panther to defeat his foes and secure the safety of his people.

"Black Panther" is directed by Ryan Coogler ("Fruitvale Station") and co-written by Coogler and Joe Robert Cole and is a much-needed superhero for the times, all the more stellar that it features an African-American superhero, led by an African-American director and all-star, mostly African-American cast. Combining African mythology and tradition with some contemporary, superhero sensibilities and technology, it's a worthy, action-packed film that will surely have people talking, and for all the right reasons.

For one, it's grounded by the excellent Boseman, who makes for a terrific, focused Black Panther, and he's countered by the solid Michael B. Jordan as his cousin and antagonist Killmonger, who's out for revenge and Black Panther's crown. Though it's Boseman who leads the way, the film is driven by four solid female characters that help it stand tall: Angela Bassett as Black Panther's mother Ramonda; Oscar-winner Lupita N'yongo ("The Force Awakens") as his love interest Nakia; Letita Wright as Black Panther's sister Shuri, and as the toughest of them all, Danai Gurira ("The Walking Dead"), who kicks ass as the leader of the Wakanda (a fictional African country) all-female special forces, the Dora Milaje.

Those themes of African-American and female empowerment give a much-needed sense of freshness and heft to the superhero game; it's long, long overdue, but Marvel's nod to diversity has come just at at time when we needed it. As part of the all-star cast, watch for Oscar-winner Forest Whitaker, current Oscar-nominee Daniel Kaluuya ("Get Out") and "The Hobbit's" Martin Freeman in key roles that help shape who Black Panther is.

The stellar photography is from current Oscar-nominee Rachel Morrison ("Mudbound"), who does a terrific job of capturing the essence of the battle scenes while Coogler's script, much of it focusing on Black Panther's backstory, has some nice twists and turns along the way. It's occasionally too earnest and predictable, and one exciting sequence seems to be an ad for Lexus vehicles, yet its breathless climax will have you on the edge of your seat.

The sublime, vastly entertaining and relevant  "Black Panther" arrives in time to kick tail, make a statement and take some names. It's a superhero film for the ages, and certainly one for now. It's one of the best of the year, and maybe the best Marvel superhero film to date.

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