Rebecca Theodore-Vachon
February 26, 2018 AT 07:55 PM EST

This story first appeared in the Feb. 23/March 2 issue of EW, on newsstands now, or buy it here. Don’t forget to subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.

What does black liberation look like?

That is the question director Ryan Coogler addresses with the release of Marvel’s Black Panther. Based on the comic-book character created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in 1966, Black Panther is an anomaly in the Marvel Cinematic Universe — a predominantly black cast centered on an African superhero, with Coogler being the first African-American director to helm a big-budget film for Marvel Studios.

Indeed, while Black Panther is a comicbook movie, Coogler flips the script by using the fictional landscape to tackle weighty themes existing within the African diaspora in real life. In this age of Black Lives Matter, where black bodies are literal targets, Coogler reclaims the narrative by portraying blackness as purposeful and powerful. In the film, characters are splendidly adorned in an Afrofuturistic fantasy, with an array of African-print robes and dresses. Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, Angela Bassett, and Letitia Wright are the powerful women who lead Coogler’s charge to challenge Eurocentric notions of beauty foisted on us by Hollywood and the media. Rarely have we seen this many black women in heroic roles within the superhero movie genre.

Film Frame/©Marvel Studios 2018

Coogler also digs deeper by showcasing characters who are less than perfect. With Killmonger (played brilliantly by Michael B. Jordan), Coogler brings to the screen what might be the MCU’s most layered villain. The rivalry between Killmonger and T’Challa, a.k.a. Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), isn’t fueled by just a fight for power, but by the complicated relationship between Africans and their estranged African-American cousins.

When a technologically advanced nation like Wakanda has gone untouched by European imperialism and the transatlantic slave trade, what responsibility do its people have to their African brothers and sisters who were snatched and sold as chattel? A lesser narrative would try to keep the nation in a utopian bubble, but Coogler and co-writer Joe Robert Cole gut-punch the audience with a painful family secret between Black Panther’s Wakanda-dwelling father, T’Chaka, and Killmonger’s America-bound father that expands the conversation.

Black Panther serves as a cautionary tale that freedom obtained by replicating systems of oppression does not liberate us but rather further enslaves us. Humanity working together to break the cycle — that is the path to true freedom.

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