Ryan Coogler's Black Panther is a visually-stunning superhero actioner, energized by a surprisingly poignant and profoundly enlightening plot that embraces the troubling sociopolitical issues of our time. The film tackles global affairs on 4K Ultra HD with a spectacularly elegant Dolby Vision HDR presentation, an excellent Dolby Atmos soundtrack, and small but worthwhile collection of supplements, making the overall package Recommended.
MILD SPOILER WARNING — please skip this portion of the review if you want to remain 100% spoiler-free.
Seventeen films into the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), it should come as no surprise a few of those franchise entries have tackled important topical, sociopolitical concerns, even if rather vaguely. Iron Man 3 and the two Captain America sequels, Winter Soldier and Civil War, are arguably unambiguous about certain contemporary anxieties while Thor: Ragnarok very subtly touches on topics about imperialism and refugees. However, Black Panther stands proudly as unique and distinct from the rest of the franchise because it fully and openly embraces the sociopolitical issues informing the plot. Making it the best, unrivaled and significant installment of the entire series, Ryan Coogler's film is, quite frankly, a work of genius, redressing the gross misrepresentation of minorities in the superhero genre and speaking directly to the heart of that community. Coogler confronts issues of globalization, colonization, the unfortunate lasting legacy of America's history with slavery and, most notably, black identity in the 21st Century.
Working with co-writer Joe Robert Cole (The People v. O. J. Simpson), Coogler (Fruitvale Station, Creed) depicts the fictional African nation of Wakanda as an isolated, unspoiled and pristine utopia. It's a beautiful land unaffected by the devasting ravages of colonialism and capitalist greed, a country surrounded by gorgeous natural beauty enjoying the most advanced technological discoveries. Basically, Wakanda's success and prosperity are due to them actively being a hidden secret to the world, thus remaining impervious to the influences of Western civilization and culture. T'Challa (Chadwick Boseman), on the cusp of his coronation, candidly expresses anxieties of his country's involvement in global affairs because he justifiably fears the price of exposing his nation's valuable resources considerably outweigh the benefits. At the same time, we're continuously shown a fledgling king surrounded by other advising him on the positive effect his reign could produce, such as his childhood crush Nakia (Lupita Nyong'o) and his sister Shuri (Letitia Wright).
Notwithstanding, T'Challa's harshly stern stance on isolationism make him somewhat blind to the struggles and challenges of African descendants, particularly the children of those who were taken as slaves and Westernized. This is where Erik "Killmonger" Stevens (an absolutely fantastic Michael B. Jordan) comes in as the film's central villain. Only, he's not like any other Marvel villain we've seen before. His motives are highly complex and deeply problematic, born from years of racial injustice and oppression which have shaped his worldview of the West and his feelings of abandonment by a nation that prospered by turning a blind eye. Killmonger espouses a clear libertarian capitalist outlook, a desire for exploiting Wakanda's resources not only for profit and advancement but to turn the tables of the West and virtually become a nation of colonizers. Essentially, he adopts a distorted, extreme view of Malcolm X's famous quote that violence for liberation is not only permissible but a form of self-defense and even called it intelligence.
As is typical of any MCU feature, the two characters must come to a head in a climactic grandiose spectacle, but it's ripe with a deeper, richer meaning as they fight one another in their vibranium-designed suits. This is a battle of opposing philosophies and conflicting desires for the future success of their people. And now, given our understanding of Killmonger, free of the white South African Klaue's (Andy Serkis) influences, alluding to another troubling racial history of colonization, his final words are all the more tragic and poignant. Added to that, his defeat simultaneously alters what should be T'Challa victory into something that feels more like a setback, the realization of the failure in the Wakandan king's political stance. Coogler's Black Panther undertakes a gravely important subject matter, engaging in an intensely uncomfortable discussion about race with profoundly moving results, and the genius of it is that he does so in the guise of an elaborate, visually-stunning superhero movie, making it arguably the best of its genre and of the MCU.
Vital Disc Stats: The Ultra HD Blu-ray
Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment brings Black Panther to 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray as a two-disc combo pack with an UltraViolet Digital Copy code, which can be redeemed via RedeemDigitalMovie.com or MoviesAnywhere for access to the HD SDR version while VUDU users can have the 4K digital version with Dolby Vision and Dolby Atmos. But as past experience has shown, this will vary between users. Inside the black, eco-vortex case with a glossy, embossed slipcover, the dual-layered UHD66 disc sits comfortably opposite a Region Free, BD50 copy. At startup, viewers are taken directly to a static screen with the usual selection along the bottom and music playing in the background.
Killmonger sets his eyes on the kingdom of Ultra HD with a spectacularly elegant and often stunning HEVC H.265 encode in Dolby Vision HDR, offering a fantastic improvement over its Blu-ray counterpart and looking closer to the theatrical presentation. Faithful to Rachel Morrison's marvelously-stylized photography, the picture displays precise, spot-on contrast, delivering some breathtaking scenic photos of Wakanda while allowing for the whites in the clothing, some of the makeup and in Shuri's sterile lab. Supplying every scene with tight, narrow specular highlights, the brightest spots are revealing, the vibranium metal throughout glistens with realism, and outside sequences under the hot sun dazzle with photorealism.
Shot exclusively on the Arri Alexa XT Plus with a max resolution of 3.4K, black levels are opulent and luxurious, providing the 2.39:1 image with a gorgeous cinematic, three-dimensional quality. However, there are several times when shadows are so dark and inky, they occasionally crush and obscure the finest details. Thankfully, it's a very minor quibble in an otherwise extraordinary 2160p transfer where the viewers can appreciate the gradational differences between the various shades for a majority of the runtime, with the South Korea street chase sure to become demo material. The jump to UHD also delivers improved definition and clarity, showing sharp, distinct lines in the cars, buildings, and streets. Daylight exteriors offer lovely panoramic shots of the landscape, exposing every blade of grass, the leaves in trees and uniquely ornate architecture of Wakanda. The clothing and hair come with true-to-life textures, facial complexions are highly revealing with natural, lifelike flesh tones, and viewers can plainly make out the fine stitching in costumes.
Created from a 4K digital intermediate, the Dolby Vision presentation is continuously brimming with life and a succulent spectacle of colors. Every scene is brimming with resplendent primaries and several notable though subtle differences from its HD SDR counterpart. The trees and grasslands are a brilliantly lush green, the same passionate reds in the Dora Milaje's uniforms now come with a faint fiery orange, and the scenic blues of the sky are of a more serene and sober color. Interestingly, the electrifying blues in the Wakandan tech now reveal hints of teal or emanate with an animated violet frenzy, giving them a dazzling neon bang. The presentation is also awash in a splendid array of secondary hues, such as the pinks, yellows, oranges, and purples in the clothing while Shuri's outfits and tech lab are always sparkling. The polished, lustrous gold jewelry have an eye-catching brilliance, and the many sunset scenes glow with a gorgeous assortment of yellowish oranges fading into beaming pinks and soft lavender blues, making this a splendid UHD.
The Black Panther battles the demons of his kingdom's past on Ultra HD with a highly-satisfying Dolby Atmos soundtrack that greatly improves over its somewhat lackluster DTS-HD MA counterpart. Although still the result of being reconfigured into a near-field mix with greater emphasis on the front soundstage, this track offers far more activity and movement in the background that feels engaging and broad. As before, I had to increase the volume to -5 from reference to better appreciate the design. Once there, the welcoming soundscape is layered with various effects discretely and flawlessly moving from left to right of the screen and vice versa, some of which occasionally bleed into the top heights, exhibiting a more expansive and detailed mid-range though it's never pushed to hard into peak frequencies. The South Korea car chase still lacks the sort of high-pitched noise and clarity of metal being crushed.
On the flipside, vocals are precise and distinct from beginning to end and no matter how loud the action may appear on screen. The low-end also seems a bit throatier and tad more room-energizing than before, with the best bass moments coming during the music, song selections and in the Wakandan aircrafts. However, many of the action sequences remain lacking or don't really deliver the sort of wall-rattling punch the visuals seem to imply, such as Klaue's sonic gun in what should be the most sonically aggressive South Korea car chase sequence.
On the plus side, rear activity does a much better job of placing the viewer in the midst of battle, though the fronts still take priority. There are several moments when atmospherics, like the chirping of birds early on, nicely occupy the space above the listening area, and there are other effects that also move across the overheads, such as the Wakandan flying machines. But in the end, such moments are far and few in between while also feeling somewhat forced and distractingly localized. The sides and rears tend to enjoy more action, like the clamor of stampeding rhinos, but once again, they don't happen often, largely failing to provide a worthwhile or decently immersive soundfield. The top heights, on the other hand, nicely expand the soundstage with the noise of debris from explosions or the musical score, generating a much-appreciated half-dome wall of sound.
Audio Commentaries: Director and co-writer Ryan Coogler is joined by production designer Hannah Beachler for an enthusiastic conversation that mostly focuses on the technical side of things where they share some thoughts on the themes but generally tend to narrate the on-screen action.
Featurettes (HD, 25 min): A collection of four separate pieces looking at different aspects of the production, from T'Challa/Black Panther and the female characters to the production design and the Wakandan tech.
Crowning of a New King
The Hidden Kingdom Revealed
The Warriors Within
Wakanda Revealed: Exploring the Technology
From Page to Screen (HD, 20 min): A roundtable discussion with the original creators and the filmmakers on the Black Panther comics, the character's history & legacy and its film adaptation.
Marvel Studios: The First Ten Years – Connecting the Universe (HD, 9 min): An entertaining look back at the Marvel Cinematic Universe essentially leading up to all the films connecting in Infinity Wars.
Deleted Scenes (HD, 7 min): A set of four excised scenes that didn't make the final cut.
Sneak Peek (HD, 2 min): Owners are treated to a brief array of interviews and BTS footage for the upcoming Ant-Man and the Wasp.
Director's Intro (HD, 1 min): Ryan Coogler shares a few thoughts on the production at the start of the film.
Gag Reel (HD, 2 min).
Layered with several complex, thought-provoking ideas that will have audiences talking long after the film's end, Ryan Coogler's Black Panther is a highly-engaging and thrilling superhero film, energized by stunning visuals, jaw-dropping action and fantastically memorable performances by the entire cast. In tackling important issues about globalization, colonization, the unfortunate lasting legacy of America's history with slavery and, most notably, black identity in the 21st Century, the 18th installment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe is arguably the best entry in the entire series, if not the genre as a whole.
The battle for Wakanda erupts on 4K Ultra HD with an elegantly stunning Dolby Vision HDR presentation that dazzles the eyes and a Dolby Atmos soundtrack sure to satisfy while also feeling somewhat lacking. With a small but nonetheless interesting and worthwhile collection of supplements to boot, the overall package is recommended for fans.