BY MICHAEL PHILLIPS
“Just because something works does not mean it cannot be improved.”
So says the tech-wizard sister of the title character in “Black Panther.”
It’s an apt credo for this soulful, stirringly acted and pretty terrific movie’s place in the Marvel Studios realm.
As a rule, these movies basically work, most of them, even if they sometimes feel more like a product, launched, than a superhero world, imagined.
But co-writer and director Ryan Coogler’s film qualifies, handily, as his third consecutive and undeniable success, following the roiling docudrama “Fruitvale Station” (2013) and the improbable, irresistible “Rocky” sequel “Creed” (2015).
Expect huge hit
“Black Panther” is also the first Marvel superhero movie I can remember with a serious emotional wallop. More important, it has a forceful, natural sense of how to let the mythic world converse with the racial politics of the real world.
These last 10 years of officially sanctioned Marvel Cinematic Universe movies got off to a misleadingly exuberant start with the first “Iron Man” in 2008.
Back then we hadn’t gotten used to the all-star, dutifully interlocking “Avengers” pictures that now roll off the assembly line on a Disney stockholder-friendly schedule.
It’s pretty clear “Black Panther” is going to be a huge hit. One of the best things about it is a simple one: It feels like a story and an achievement unto itself.
A super cast
In his current incarnation, the character first appeared in “Captain America: Civil War” (2016), and he’s reporting for world-saving duty in the upcoming “Avengers: Infinity War.”
But the movie opening this week is the one where he gets the room to breathe. Put another way: Chadwick Boseman’s regal, rock-solid portrayal gets its due, and a dozen or more wonderfully acted supporting roles get theirs, too.
Created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in 1966, the title character is the son of the king of the (fictional) African nation Wakanda.
The screenplay, which Coogler wrote with Joe Robert Cole, follows familiar storytelling grooves, but you don’t get that hectic, blurry feeling some of the Marvels impart as they hustle between action sequences.
There’s a pleasing fullness and rounded-out quality to the best scenes in “Black Panther.” Coogler and his comrades maximize each new vignette and new set of characters rolling in and out of the story.
Substance of film
In brief: Wakanda, consisting of five tribes, was blessed long ago by a meteorite made of a magical substance called vibranium.
The glowing alien metal gives humans the strength, agility and star billing of superhumans, and feeds the special herbal potion that turns the king of the moment into Black Panther, a warrior, a protector and an extremely fast and high-leaping wonder.
In the early stages of Coogler’s film, king T’Chaka (John Kani) expires, leaving the throne to be filled by his son, T’Challa (Boseman).
The newly crowned king’s key allies include T’Challa’s brash, delightful sister Shuri (Letitia Wright), who’s constantly showing off the latest in Wakandan technology and gadgetry.
With a lively wit and urgent fire in the eyes, Lupita Nyong’o portays T’Challa’s ex, currently one of the nation’s undercover “war dogs” surveying the outside world.
General Okoye, the spear-wielding standout in Wakanda’s all-female Special Forces team, comes to vivid life in the hands of Danai Gurira.
Angela Bassett and Forest Whitaker are inevitably perfect casting as the queen and the kingdom’s Obi-Wan, respectively.
May Marvel learn its lesson from “Black Panther”: When a movie like this ends up feeling both personal and vital, you’ve done something right.