“BLACK PANTHER” — 3 stars — Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong'o, Letitia Wright; PG-13 (prolonged sequences of action violence and a brief rude gesture); in general release

The first superhero film on the 2018 calendar has arrived, and it’s a unique entry among Marvel’s ever-expanding cast of characters.

Ryan Coogler’s “Black Panther” picks up sometime after the events of 2016’s “Captain America: Civil War,” which introduced us to Prince T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), the masked protector of the African nation of Wakanda who had to take up the Black Panther mantle after the death of his father.

Coogler’s film takes us to Wakanda, where we are introduced to a highly developed, hidden city that pairs advanced technology and traditional African aesthetic hand in hand. The city is located on top of a massive deposit of vibranium, the same material Tony Stark’s father used to build Captain America’s shield. Wakanda’s heart has long been hidden from the rest of the world, and the Black Panther has been its official protector for generations.

When we catch up with T’Challa, he is going through a formal process that will officially name him king of Wakanda. To do so, he will have to face down any challengers from one of Wakanda’s five tribes, which really only becomes an issue when it comes to the reclusive Jabari tribe, led by M’Baku (Winston Duke).

Once in place, T’Challa is able to turn his attention to Wakanda’s more external threats, namely Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis), a black-market dealer who has a taste for vibranium. But eventually T’Challa is forced to recognize a much more serious threat from a mysterious man named Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), who has a dark connection to T’Challa’s past.

The conflict between T’Challa and Killmonger drives “Black Panther’s” drama, in addition to its sociological and even political themes. It isn’t too heavy-handed, but unlike other recent Marvel outings, “Black Panther” feels like it wants to make a statement.

The film is pretty straight-laced and serious compared to the last few Marvel movies to grace the big screen, including last year’s “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” the second Guardians of the Galaxy film, and especially Taika Waititi’s “Thor: Ragnarok” (though, to be fair, “Ragnarok” would make anything short of a Monty Python routine appear straight-laced and serious).

There are a few light moments here and there, and T’Challa’s sister Shuri (Letitia Wright) — who functions as a kind of Wakanda Q to Black Panther’s James Bond — is a refreshing addition to a cast that also includes Lupita Nyong’o as T’Challa’s love interest Nakia, “The Walking Dead’s” Danai Gurira as the warrior General Okoye, and Angela Bassett as T’Challa’s mother Ramonda. There's obviously nothing wrong with a sober tone, but it does rob “Black Panther” a little of its fun factor.

Coogler works hard to deliver on the action side of the equation, with an exciting sequence in South Korea and a climactic battle in Africa that carries a distinct Lord of the Rings vibe. Jordan brings gravitas as the film’s antagonist, and these kinds of movies are always elevated when the bad guy is more than a placeholder.

As a formal showcase for the Black Panther, Coogler’s film should keep diehard Marvel fans happy, though as with most of the franchise’s standalone films that have come after 2012’s “Avengers” film, it’s easy to feel that you should be seeing a bit more participation from the characters that are just offscreen. Of course, considering May’s upcoming “Avengers: Infinity War,” greedy Marvel fans should probably be careful what they wish for.

“Black Panther” is rated PG-13 for prolonged sequences of action violence and a brief rude gesture; running time: 134 minutes.