28 August 2018
Black Panther was a special production for many involved in its construction, representing not just another movie about a fictional hero capable of great feats but standing as a symbol as the first superhero of African descent. The character debuted in the 1960s, created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, at the height of the Civil Rights movement in the United States and has become one of the most beloved icons of the Marvel, and indeed the greater comic book, universe. The character was introduced to moviegoers in the fantastic Captain America: Civil War and is now the focus of Director Ryan Coogler's (Fruitvale Station, Creed) third feature film. Black Panther is a rip-roaring Superhero film steeped in culture and tradition while simultaneously presenting cutting-edge technology and modern-made excitement. The film's arcing plot line is a little stale, but it's a fine, fun flick that performs well above most of its cliché-riddled parts.
The king is dead, long live the king! The African nation of Wakanda, thought to be well behind the times and poverty stricken by the outside world, is actually a technologically advanced society thanks to the fortuitous arrival of a meteorite made of the alien metal "vibranium" some years ago. It has transformed Wakandan society, a transformation the people and leadership have kept secret for many years. In line to lead the nation is T'Challa (Chadwick Boseman) who fends off a tribal challenge to take his rightful seat at the nation's head and assume the identity of the Black Panther. He is immediately tested when it is revealed that an old enemy, a man his father could not defeat named Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis), has stolen a valuable vibranium sample for a museum that did not know what it had in its possession. Aiding the longtime Wakandan nemesis is N'Jadaka (Michael B. Jordan), a radical with his eyes set on a bigger prize than even the valuable vibranium.
Black Panther soars as a production steeped in its characters' culture. The film is set in the fictional nation of Wakanda, a landlocked country said to be isolated form the world and believed to be a poor, struggling third-world nation. However, the people hold a secret that has provided them radical advancements in technology, including medicine and weapons. The filmmakers have done a wonderful job of effortlessly blending together colorful, carefully considered culture and radical, but not unbelievable, technology into the film's world. It's an oftentimes breathtaking display of new and old, of characters expressing themselves, battling, and caring for one another in ways that highlight both ends of the spectrum, and that they so effortlessly, and believably, maneuver through both with nary a hiccup along the way is a testament to, certainly, their skills as actors but also the writers' vision for the world and how and why it works. For the audience, it's a dazzling display, quite unlike anything that has ever been on the screen before, and even as the film plods through a story that's as cliché as the world is visionary, the structural support carries the film beyond the crudities of its basic arc.
The film elevates considerably once the action is truly set into motion, after core story arcs begin to take shape, and character motivations and secrets are revealed. Action scenes are exciting and well choreographed, even if they often stem from fairly trite, stale dramatic circumstances. A car chase partway through the film is exceptionally well crafted, with several unique ideas executed to perfection while the sequence yields enjoyable mayhem. But the film thrives more on its character construction and less on its action, more on its arcing story and less on its point-to-point scenes. It's a film that's by-and-large predictable in execution, even as it takes a difficult dramatic turn at the end of its second act to which the characters react remarkably well and help create a sense of panic, sadness, and darkness at the new realty before them, but even still there's not much of an element of surprise at how the movie will resolve thereafter. But it's fun. It's crafted with passion on both side of the camera, the production values are everything one could want in a movie of this type, and even if the characters maneuver through stock ebbs and flows, they do so with conviction. The cast is fantastic all-around, each primary absorbed into the character and buying into the blend of traditional-meets-future. Michael B. Jordan is the film's standout as the cocky and powerful villain.
Black Panther's UHD release offers modest-to-almost-major improvements over the excellent 1080p Blu-ray. Even in the dark opening virabnium meteor animation, and watching more than 24 hours later and without a direct comparison to the Blu-ray, it's easy to see a difference. Deeper outer space blacks and significantly more vibrant electric blue highlights jump off the screen as the first of many positive impressions for this UHD's color grading. The 12-bit Dolby Vision color palette is, as it tends to be, the biggest difference maker on the disc. The movie's colors are much more dense, deep, and seemingly accurate. The Blu-ray looks almost blown out with the contrast turned too high in several scenes when a direct A-B comparison was conducted. The entire palette -- blue skies, natural greens, decorative and vibrant clothing and accent colors, skin tones -- are much more nuanced and much more robust. Even as the image is comparatively darker than the Blu-ray, it's at the same time more brilliant and capable of producing significant color refinement. The various title cards seen throughout the film offer a much more intense and bright white color delivery. The car chase through the streets of Busan makes a great reference moment for Dolby Vision. The combination of perfectly deep nighttime blacks and a barrage of brilliantly bright light sources brings every shot to amazing life with more boldness and intensity than the Blu-ray can muster, and by a fair margin, too.
Increases in raw detailing are a little less dramatic. The film was reportedly photographed at a resolution of 3.4K and finished at 4K. The UHD offers a modest uptick in image sharpness and clarity over the excellent Blu-ray, but viewers will be hard-pressed to note many, if any, substantial boosts in visible definition on skin, clothes, or natural formations. Pores appear a little more deep, skin decorations more pronounced, fabric textures a bit more dense, natural land masses in Wakanda more naturally rugged, but there are no major leaps. That said, the boost in textural yield is welcome and is complimented by the more robust Dolby Vision color grading. This is a very good UHD. It's not a standout, particularly compared to many film-sourced transfers, but there's much to like here, even if all areas of concern are not drastically boosted over the Blu-ray.
In terms of the low volume thing Disney has going on, there's no difference between this Dolby Atmos soundtrack and the Blu-ray's DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 lossless soundtrack. While both are largely fine when turned up well beyond one's normal, comfortable listening levels, the studio's insistence on delivering rather comparatively (to other discs) puny soundtracks is a mystery. At least cranking up the volume largely alleviates the issue, but even still this Atmos track, like the DTS track before it on the Blu-ray, just can't match the best for sheer aural excellence, full-on low end depth, and general dynamism. The track is certainly not lacking stage coverage. Action scenes take full advantage, including here the top layer (which can be prominent, but still in a complimentary manner, in the big car chase sequence midway through the film or as ships fly above later on). The track spreads its wares around with a natural spread. Listeners will always feel immersed into the action, whether large-scale battles, cliffside clashes for leadership, or more confined action locations, such as during a jail break scene midway through. Low end engagement in these scenes is healthy, but not prominent. Balance can be an issue. Take a battle atop a waterfall in chapter 12; music is the dominant factor, and the sounds of clashing combatants -- metal-on-metal hits -- largely fall into the music, lacking the distinction and clarity that seems necessary to the scene. Atmospheric effects find a pleasing full stage immersion. There are some scenes featuring mild dialogue reverberation, though it can sound a little more tinny than natural; a dialogue exchange at the 1:15:00 mark is an example. Dialogue is otherwise fairly clear and well prioritized.
Black Panther's UHD disc contains no extras. All supplements can be found on the bundled Blu-ray. A Movies Anywhere digital copy code is included with purchase.
Crowning of a New King (1080p, 5:34): A look at Black Panther's debut in Civil War, the character's place in the Avengers, the costume, the character's grounded and relatable origins, the character's journey between Civil War and this film, the character's comic origins, the film's driving story, and more.
The Hidden Kingdom Revealed (1080p, 6:57): A closer look at the fictional realm of Wakanda, both the location and the people who inhabit it.
The Warriors Within (1080p, 6:08): A discussion of the prominent role women play in Wakanda, with focus on several of the film's key female characters.
Wakanda Revealed: Exploring the Technology (1080p, 6:16): This piece explores the critical role Vibranium plays in the story, including how it has helped develop the land and its use in clothing, weapons, and vehicles.
Gag Reel (1080p, 1:38).
Deleted Scenes (1080p, 6:53 total runtime): Included are UN Meet and Greet, Okoye and W'Kabi Discuss the Future of Wakanda, T'Challa Remembers His Father, and Voices from the Past.
From Page to Screen: A Roundtable Discussion (1080p, 20:27): Comic Writer Christopher Priest, Comic Writer Don McGregor, Black Panther Executive Producer Nate Moore, Comic Writer Ta-Nehisi Coates, Black Panther Writer Joe Robert Cole, and Black Panther Co-Writer/Director Ryan Coogler discuss the character's history in the comics, his emergence in the Civil Rights era, the character's transition to the screen, the character and story's importance to African-Americans and general society, the character's place in contemporary America, the character's cinematic introduction in Civil War, Chadwick Boseman's performance, and more. This is the best supplement of the bunch.
Marvel Studios: The First Ten Years -- Connecting the Universe (1080p, 8:39): A look at the crossover worlds and the sprawling character roster in the Marvel films.
Exclusive Sneak Peek at Ant-Man and the Wasp (1080p, 2:26): A quick behind-the-scenes look at the upcoming movie with on-set footage and interview snippets.
Audio Commentary: Director Ryan Coogler and Production Designer Hannah Beachler offer a rich, passionate, and well-versed commentary that covers all of the usual commentary essentials as well as details beyond the basics of the shoot. A very good track.
Director Ryan Coogler Intro (1080p, 1:23): Available only under the "Play" tab. Coogler discusses the honor of bringing the character and comic to the screen, powerful women in the film, and the themes that connect to him and wide audiences alike.
Black Panther is not a bastion of narrative creativity, but it's done well, it's exciting, it's well acted, and it's beautifully and passionately crafted. Action, costumes, and conviction make up for a fairly linear storyline that has precious few surprises up its sleeve. It's not the best entry into the MCU, but it's a lot of fun in its exploration of one of the most interesting worlds and engaging characters on the Marvel roster. Disney's UHD delivers a very good 2160p/Dolby Vision picture that's more a standout for its color than its texture (compared to the Blu-ray). The Atmos track suffers from Disney low volume-itis but is largely fine, with some mild issues, at a much louder level. Extras are excellent. Highly recommended.