TUCSON, Ariz. - "Black Panther" is a movie you hoped would pump you up with an adrenaline rush. Instead, it's a slow, steady trickle of excitement. As far as Marvel movies go, that puts it firmly in the lower ranks, among the likes of "Thor: The Dark World" and "The Incredible Hulk."
Not that the movie is a total disappointment. At its best, it can hang with the bewildering thrills of Iron Man and Captain America at their most dashing.
On one hand, it's delightful to see a splash of color culture -- albeit that of a made-up African utopia -- in a Marvel cinematic universe that heavily favored western society and white faces.
On the other, "Black Panther" deserved something better than the labored, dry origin tale he got.
Chadwick Boseman has already energetically established the character in his "Captain America: Civil War" cameo, and this is his opportunity to flex his muscles and show what makes the mysterious Wakandian monarch tick. Boseman's smoldering performance holds up the character with aplomb, especially when he's out of the mask and manipulating friends and foes with a steely glare and seething rhetoric.
Black Panther at his best is a silk-smooth bolt of controlled rage, taking down marks with ninja speed, his bulletproof, energy-refracting suit rendering him an all but invulnerable angel of vengeance. Bolstered with top-tier CGI effects, "Black Panther" is best when it dispenses with the storytelling and steeps in action.
Director Ryan Coogler ("Fruitvale Station," "Creed") has proven adept at ironing out complicated narratives and sprawling casts of characters into tight, relatable packages. He strains here, though, struggling to condense the sprawling, globe-hopping espionage saga into a 135-minute running time that somehow feels too short and rushed, as though it were a "The Godfather"-sized novel shrunken down to movie size, or more worthy of a 10-episode Netflix series.
As far as characterizations and storytelling goes, the film has more in common with the second-tier Marvel tales on Netflix, including "Daredevil," "Luke Cage" and "The Punisher." The overall Marvel universe scope shrinks away from view due to the tight focus on T'Challa and his personal issues of heritage and country.
The saga zips among various time frames and global settings, pitting T'Challa against archrival Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), who vies for control of the Wakandian crown and the mantle of its magic and technology-infused costumed hero. The African equivalent to Atlantis or El Dorado, Wakanda is bolstered with advancements that are light years beyond western society, and its leaders have protected its society by hiding it and disguising its public face as that of a poverty-plagued, agrarian culture.
Arms dealers and greed, however, have pushed Wakanda into the spotlight with a precious metal found only in the country, as well as artifacts crafted from the material, making their rounds on the black market, threatening to expose Wakanda and tip the balance toward adversaries. Stuck in this convoluted story, T'Challa is forced into James Bond-style espionage and diplomatic housekeeping rather than typical superhero train-stopping, child-rescuing and building-tops posing.
The film strains to grind against formulaic expectations, but probably leaned too hard in that direction. "Black Panther" is so intent on standing out from the Marvel pack that it falls behind its best and brightest.
RATING: 2.5 stars out of 4.