THE lucrative Marvel Comics universe will expand exponentially in the next 12 months.

Avengers: Infinity War and Ant-Man And The Wasp are waiting in the wings, tightly coiled with droll humour and hyper-kinetic energy.

But first out of the blocks is a rousing standalone adventure for the eponymous African king, who we first encountered in the superhero battle royale Captain America: Civil War.

If Black Panther is emblematic of things to come from the comic books pantheon then roll on 2018 because this frenetically edited odyssey of self-doubt and redemption is the big cat’s whiskers.

Ryan Coogler’s slinky picture is barnstorming entertainment of the highest pedigree, which sinks its narrative claws into present-day racial tensions and gender inequality with relish.

Female characters are feisty, intelligent and refuse to sit demurely on the sidelines while engaging yet flawed male counterparts have all the fun.

A predominantly black cast festooned with Oscar winners and nominees adds lustre to a lean script co-written by Joe Robert Cole, teasing out tender romance and bruising bloodline rivalries.

T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) returns to grief-stricken Wakanda – a pacifist, technologically advanced society ‘hidden in plain view’ – following the murder of his father, King T’Chaka (John Kani), in a terrorist bombing.

Four of the African nation’s five clans support his ascension but the Jabari mountain people commanded loudly voice their opposition.

Fragile allegiances fracture and CIA-trained operative Erik ‘Killmonger’ Stevens (Michael B. Jordan) chooses this moment to strike.

Flanked by formidable bodyguard Okoye (Danai Gurira), T’Challa rouses his supporters including his mother Ramonda (Angela Bassett), spunky teenage sister Shuri (Letitia Wright) and old flame Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o).

Black Panther repeatedly flexes its impressive technical muscles.

Pulse-quickening skirmishes are choreographed at a furious pace, and a car chase through the night-time streets of Busan in South Korea employs slow motion acrobatics to dizzying effect.

Coogler’s film purrs sweetly during quieter, contemplative moments too as conflicted characters wrestle with moral obligations.

That blistering tug of war between self-preservation and philanthropy provides plentiful dramatic meat for cast to sink their teeth into.

RATING: 8.5/10