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. With excellent Dolby Vision / HDR10 visuals, a solid Dolby Atmos soundtrack, and a good set of bonus features, the Vudu UHD streaming version is Recommended for enthusiasts who don't collect 4K discs even though this presentation is just shy of the wow factor of its physical counterpart.
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.
For a more in-depth take on the movie, you can read our review of the day-and-date 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray release HERE.
Vital Stats: 4K Digital Copy
Black Panther makes its home entertainment debut as a digital copy a week prior to the 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray, Blu-ray, and DVD releases. (There's also a 3D release, but not here in the US where we are based.) On Vudu, this 4K UHD digital copy includes Dolby Vision and HDR10 HDR options, Dolby Atmos audio, and ten special features. As of this writing, the digital copy costs about the same price as the Blu-ray packaging and a few dollars less than the 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray set.
Although we're reviewing this digital copy via Vudu, Black Panther is also available through the following streaming services:
--FandangoNOW: 4K (HDR10, no Atmos)
--Google Play: HD
--Microsoft Movies & TV: 4K (HDR10, no Atmos)
--Movies Anywhere: HD
--YouTube Movies: HD
At this time, it appears Vudu, Microsoft, and FandangoNOW are the only places to enjoy the movie in 4K. Please do let us know if this changes.
Killmonger invades the kingdom of VUDU Ultra HD with a beautiful HEVC encode in both Dolby Vision and HDR10, delivering precise, spot-on contrast in the many breathtaking scenic sequences of Wakanda. While the whites in clothing, makeup, and Shuri's sterile lab are crisp and brilliant throughout, specular highlights are not quite as tight and narrow as on the disc. Nevertheless, the vibranium metal still glistens in the sun with realism and viewers can clearly make out the distinct details within the brightest areas. Meanwhile, the 2.39:1 image is awash with inky rich black levels, providing the movie with a lovely cinematic quality. But, as was seen on the disc, there are a few times when shadows are so dark, some of the finer details can be obscured by the darkest shadows. It's a minor quibble, though, in an otherwise beautiful picture where the gradational differences between the various shades can be appreciated, with the South Korea street chase remaining the movie's highlight.
Speaking of which, overall definition and resolution are fairly razor-sharp, exposing every blade of grass, the leaves in trees and uniquely ornate architecture of the Wakandan villages. Just as on the physical disc, most impressive moments are the daylight exteriors offering lovely panoramic shots of the landscape with the sun brightly shining in the background. 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.
The only issue worth pointing out, keeping the streaming video short of a perfect score, are some of the sharpest fine lines and edges of buildings not looking as stable as other aspects. Occasionally, we have instances of mild aliasing or, at worst, very minor macroblocking during the fast-paced action sequences. However, much of that can be explained or excused as the result of my internet speed and connection.
Coming from a digital source that was later mastered into a 4K digital intermediate, the Dolby Vision presentation is brimming with an array of sumptuous colors. The Dora Milaje's uniforms come in succulent, passionate reds with a faint hint of fiery orange, the trees and grasslands are a brilliantly lush green, and the blue sky is a vivid, tranquil shade. Most impressive is the continuous parade of lush, opulent secondary hues throughout, from the ceremony clothing at T'Challa's coronation and the pinks, yellows, oranges, and purples of the beautiful sunsets to the teal-blue of the Wakandan tech and the polished, lustrous gold jewelry have an eye-catching brilliance.
In the audio department, Black Panther unfortunately battles the same demons heard on the Blu-ray and the Ultra HD disc. Although the Dolby Atmos soundtrack remains just as satisfying as before, listeners will likely need to raise the volume to near reference, or at least, a couple decibels just above that, to better appreciate it. 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. However, as detailed as the mid-range often feels during action sequences, it still is not particularly dynamic with the South Korea car chase lacking the sort of high-pitched noise and clarity of metal being crushed. On the other end, vocals are precise and distinct from beginning to end, often seeming louder the visuals. And like before, the low-end can be punchy and room-energizing in a few spots, but overall, bass tends to feel deficient and wanting in scenes that should ideally be sonically aggressive.
On the plus side, rear activity does a nice job of placing the viewer in the midst of battle, though the fronts still take priority. There are several moments when atmospherics nicely occupy the space above the listening area, and there are other effects that also move across the overheads. But in the end, such moments are far and few in between while also feeling somewhat forced and distractingly localized. The sides and rears are also employed during a few key sequences, 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.
Black Panther on Vudu UHD includes most of supplements from the home video release, which can be read in more detail in our review of the 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray review HERE. Missing from this digital release are the director's introduction and audio commentary.
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.
As a 4K digital copy, Vudu UHD streaming video offers a noticeable upgrade over other HD streaming options, but it falls just shy of perfection. Likewise, the Dolby Atmos mix suffers from the same lack of depth and dynamic range as heard on both the Blu-ray and Ultra HD discs. With the same set of supplements, except the director's intro and audio commentary, the streaming option is Recommended for those who no longer collect physical media.