THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR BLACK PANTHER

Before we get to reviewing Black Panther in earnest, I think it’s important to take a step back. Eighteen movies in, it’s sometimes easy to forget how impressive the Marvel Cinematic Universe is. Now that critical and box office success has become the norm, and even the MCU’s weakest entries are still at least moderate crowd pleasers, nobody is asking whether or not Black Panther is good—that can pretty much be taken as a given. We’re asking whether it’s merely good, or if it’s another game-changing, genre defying film in a franchise that has already managed to make multiple game-changing, genre defying films. That’s pretty incredible.

Black Panther could have been bad. The comic book industry’s (and by extension, comic book movie industry’s) relationship with representing people of color is….let’s just say, a mixed bag. Mishandling the racial and political themes of this movie could have turned the entire thing into a tone-deaf mess that makes Iron Fist look downright progressive. Or worse, if the studio had decided to play it safe by not tackling the topic of race, the film could have been an even bigger disappointing adaptation of its source material than Inhumans. But, whereas those two shows were crafted by the “alternatively-talented” hands of Scott BuckBlack Panther is directed by Ryan Coogler, who in his short career has already proven himself to be one of Hollywood’s greatest directing talents. This is Coogler’s movie, and he makes his style and energy felt in every single beat of the film.

The cast of this movie is incredible, and nearly every actor delivers a stand-out performance that, in a movie with a less bonkers-talented cast, would steal the show. T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), and Shuri (Letitia Wright) are all contenders for the best performances for main characters; but the movie is elevated to even greater success by the phenomenal minor characters like M’Baku (Winston Duke), Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis), W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya) and Zuri (Forest Whitaker).

But even though this movie is chock-full of great characters, the movie is really about Wakanda. The mythical futuristic African nation and everything it represents are the key to this movie, so the story only works as well as Wakanda works. And oh boy, does it work. Coogler has such a clear vision of Wakanda’s history, its culture, its aesthetic, and he executes it flawlessly. The world building is so complete and seamless that, just hours after seeing the film, remembering a time in the MCU before Wakanda was part of its history is as strange as remembering a time before Asgard was part of it.

As I mentioned above, the themes of race are front and center in this film, and it’s pretty much impossible for me to review the film without talking about them. That being said, as someone who comes from a long line of Colonizers, I don’t really think anyone wants or needs to hear my thoughts on this movie’s commentary on African and African American identity and experience. What I will say, though, is that Black Panther manages to both personalize those themes while also retaining the sense of scale. Yes, race and identity are at the roots of most of the personal conflicts in the film, but the real cause of these problems is systemic and global. In that way, Black Panther captures the best parts of a political drama while also delivering a powerful message at a time when that message needs to be heard the most.

There are a few nitpicks I can find in this film, but my only real complaint is that I’m going to have to wait years to see the sequel.  The fight scenes in the movie are overall solid, but there’s a little too much reliance on shaky cam and quick cuts, and there are a few CGI shots during the action sequences that aren’t quite right. Nothing too distracting, but easy to spot if you’re looking for it. Also, Klaw was such a fun yet menacing villain that it’s a shame we won’t get to see him show up again in a future film. Still, killing him established Killmonger as a much more intelligent villain and helped justify why otherwise sympathetic characters like W’kabi would side with him so quickly.

Verdict: This review could go on forever listing everything this film did well. The cinematography, the production design, the music, and the humor all deserve praise. But to return to the question posed at the beginning of this review, the answer is clear: Black Panther is not just a good movie, it is exactly the game-changing, genre-defying, franchise-starting triumph we all hoped it would be.