That's entirely by design. Wakanda is, in fact, the most advanced civilization on Earth. Their incomprehensibly massive stores of vibranium ?" the most valuable mineral the world over ?" has led to the development of technology that few could dream possible. Wakanda has hidden in plain sight for centuries. Their tech masks the grandeur of their Golden City, and that third world façade doesn't inspire much of anyone to bother digging beneath that deceptively unremarkable surface.
Still, though: power...responsibility. That's the core of the conflict in Black Panther. Should Wakanda's primary responsibility be towards its people and its traditions? With the gifts that Wakanda has to offer an increasingly embattled world, should the long-isolated nation open its arms to help? Embracing refugees means subjecting oneself to their troubles. Fully revealing its resources and technology exposes Wakanda to exploitation and perhaps even war. Even in the best of outcomes, the culture they so treasure cannot help but be transformed. So, yes, there is continuing to live in isolation. There is charity and the pursuit of a greater peace. There is also the possibility of Wakanda raising arms, distributing their devastating weapons across the globe to at long last release the stranglehold of a racist status quo.
The conventional Wakandan wisdom is to remain hidden. In those rare occasions when outsiders have penetrated the nation's defenses, as gun runner and black marketeer Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) had decades earlier, it's ended in theft and bloodshed. The late T'Chaka (John Kani) was taking the first steps towards Wakanda stepping out from the shadows before his reign as king was cut short. His son, T'Challa (Chadwick Boseman) ?" the latest of his bloodline to wear the mantle of Black Panther ?" is at a crossroads, uncertain how far back to pull the curtain. T'Challa's heart tells him to help, but it's not that simple a decision. This is a country that clings tightly to tradition, and there's the certainty that this genie can never again be placed back in its bottle once released. Storming in from the outside is Erik "Killmonger" Stevens. Having lost his father to a brutal end and slaughtering untold hundreds as a black ops soldier, it should come as little surprise that his eyes are focused squarely on Wakanda's arsenal. Why place a band-aid on the world's problems when you can forcefully carve out the cancer?
Black Panther bears a different sort of connection to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It builds from elements introduced in previous films ?" vibranium in Captain America: The First Avenger, Klaue in Avengers: Age of Ultron, and the first appearances of its titular hero and Wakanda in Civil War ?" but otherwise exists on its own. Even those building blocks still very much belong to Black Panther, originally dating back to the introduction of T'Challa in the pages of Fantastic Four more than fifty years ago*. There are no gratuitous cameos in the film proper, and nods to prior Marvel entries are limited to just those with a direct, material impact on these characters. This extends to CIA operative Everett Ross (Martin Freeman), who wasn't given much to do in Civil War but is presented as a more fully realized character here, in keeping with his counterpart's prominent role in the Black Panther comics.
Rather than prop itself up on the crutches of a connected universe, Black Panther prefers instead to deftly weave Shakespearean drama with four-color action. Wakanda is realized as a world unto its own. It isn't a place comprised of a people but a greatly varied land of five distinct tribes. Whereas Asgard is meant to evoke a sort of otherworldly magic, Wakanda roots its futuristic society in ancient traditions. Beyond the elaborate, fiercely imaginative set design is a place where actual people live (and eat, as co-writer/director Ryan Coogler delights in highlighting in the disc's extras). It looks amazing but also feels like a tactile place that could conceivably exist. That sense of verisimilitude is heightened by the immense research in Africa that informs the strikingly colorful wardrobe, the dialects spoken, the elements unique to each tribe, the instrumentation in the score, and...well, most every other aspect of the film.
Black Panther refuses to reduce its conflicts to Good and Evil. The course that Wakanda should take isn't dictated by T'Challa alone but is a conversation among many, each proposing different yet understandable, valid paths forward. The greatest villains are the ones that believe themselves to be the hero, and that's certainly the case with Killmonger. Perhaps reflecting the path that T'Challa's journey could've taken had the circumstances been different, Killmonger is not a moustache-twirling megalomaniac from a '40s action serial; he craves justice. He's committed terrible acts, yes, but they're all in the service of positioning himself to be able to make a difference. Erik has seen throughout his life that true change is wrought by force, and that's how he seeks to make the world a more just place. Wakanda's isolation makes it easier for its population to be indifferent to the lands beyond, and what sets Killmonger apart is that he's seen with his own two eyes how cruel and unforgiving it can be.
While Black Panther is a drama about family and duty, it's not afraid to crack a smile along the way. T'Challa's ex Nakia (Lupita Nyong'o) is a bombshell of a spy and a warrior in her own right. His smirking kid sister Shuri (Letitia Wright) is the Q to his Bond, arming him with a warehouse full of hyperfuturistic gadgets. In stark contrast to most comic book movie villains anymore, Klaue is more likely to cackle than glower, and I'm dead certain he's the first with his own SoundCloud page. Armored rhinos, upended cars, force fields, Mega Buster sonic panther gauntlets, a cannibalism gag for good measure, some of the most astonishing action sequences of recent memory: there is something awe-inspiring around every corner, ensuring that the 135 minute Black Panther moves so nimbly that it feels closer to half that length.
There's so much else about Black Panther that demands to be discussed. There's no ignoring its staggering success at the box office: among the ten highest grossing motion pictures of all time and still on the weekend charts as I write this. That's all the more remarkable considering that it's effectively a new IP rather than a sequel, and even moreso given that it's a massively budgeted superhero blockbuster populated almost entirely by people of color. Its gender dynamics are fascinating as well, with women holding an equal (perhaps greater) place in Wakandan society than men. The nation's greatest warriors ?" the Dora Milaje, led by scene-stealing Okoye (Danai Gurira) ?" and most brilliant minds are all women. Yes, elements of the climactic battle royale don't stand up to close scrutiny. Some of the CGI lacks the polish I would've preferred to have seen. As thrilling and imaginative as the action is, these sequences aren't always staged quite as well as they could've been. Angela Bassett shouldn't be as underutilized as she is here. As complaints go, those are awfully minor. Black Panther rewards repeat viewings. Its combination of world-building, familial drama, and futuristic pulp action is irresistible. Black Panther captures so much of what I love about the Marvel Cinematic Universe while still carving out a distinct path all its own. In other words...? Highly Recommended.
Black Panther easily ranks as the most impressive of Marvel's handful of Ultra HD Blu-ray releases to date. The image is, of course, crisp and immaculately detailed. Even in dimly-lit sequences such as the opening assault in the Sambisa Forest, shadow detail remains robust. Its lush, vibrant palette frequently dazzles, most memorably the vivid colors of the Wakandans' clothing. Its Dolby Vision grade sets this disc that much further apart from the traditional Blu-ray release, with the searing African sun, the ever-present neon alongside the streets of Busan, the highlights of gleaming skin and armor, and the blue glow of vibranium-powered tech repeatedly leaving me awestruck. While not a wall-to-wall HDR showcase, it does greatly heighten an already terrific experience.
Both the Ultra HD Blu-ray release and the accompanying 1080p BD maintain a consistent aspect ratio. If history is any indication, the 3D Blu-ray release ?" only available overseas ?" will open the top and bottom in IMAX sequences, though this has not yet been confirmed.
Disney insists on flattening out the dynamics of their home video releases these days, and Black Panther suffers as a result. If the goal is to tailor a near-field mix to users with soundbars or the speakers built into their TVs, that's fine, but why not provide an alternate soundtrack to better reflect the theatrical experience? Given the choice, I'd gladly deal with the mild hassle of a couple extra clicks in a submenu to avoid the compromises forced upon us here.
The Dolby Atmos soundtrack for Black Panther rarely musters a proper roar. The volume has to be cranked up quite a bit to sound anything close to normal, and even then, the LFE is too often underwhelming. It's the inconsistency that makes it particularly bizarre. Hip-hop is reinforced by a thunderous low-end throughout. Certain effects, such as the pent-up kinetic energy being unleashed in Shuri's lab, pack a considerable wallop. Black Panther's immersive audio proves that it's capable of reaching deeply into the lower frequencies, and yet explosions, gunfire, and the like rarely make a meaningful impact until the climactic battle royale. There's bass, yes, but it's not nearly as powerful or pronounced as it ought to be. Though not nearly as dire as Age of Ultron, the aural nadir of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Black Panther's limp LFE still fails to fully reflect the thrilling spectacle unfolding onscreen.
On the upside, dialogue is rendered flawlessly throughout, never finding itself struggling for placement even in Black Panther's most chaotic moments. The surrounds are utilized well, from the cavernous reverb in the subterranean Heart-Shaped Herb garden to the armored rhinos storming across the soundscape. The heights and rears flesh out atmospherics marvelously, furthering Black Panther's drive to establish a strong sense of place. Wakandan aerial fighters soaring overhead, magnetically levitated trains, and the scattered shrapnel as Klaue sonically dismantles a speeding car are among the standout effects that seize hold of most every available speaker.
Perhaps a re-release down the road will revert from this near-field mix and snarl with the ferocity that Black Panther deserves, but until that happens, I can't in good conscience rate the audio as highly as I have the other sections of this review. Good but far from great.
The other audio options on this Ultra HD Blu-ray disc are Dolby Digital+ 7.1 tracks in English and Spanish, a French Dolby Digital 5.1 dub, and stereo descriptive audio. The list of subtitles includes English (SDH), French, Spanish, Korean, Thai, and a pair of Chinese streams. The traditional Blu-ray disc in this set offers 24-bit, eight-channel DTS-HD Master Audio in English, stereo descriptive audio, and Dolby Digital 5.1 dubs (640kbps) in French and Spanish. Its subtitles are limited to English (SDH), French, and Spanish.
Black Panther's extras are presented entirely on the standard Blu-ray disc. As is generally the case, there's nothing but the movie itself on Ultra HD Blu-ray ?" not even the audio commentary. As much as I enjoyed this wealth of material, running more than three hours in all, I would've loved to have seen the bonus features be more extensive still. In particular, it's a bit strange to see so many YouTube videos delving into its visual effects and the score by Ludwig Göransson, and yet very little along these lines is provided on the disc itself.
The Final Word
I'm among the great many to be entranced by the world that Black Panther has created, and those who led the film to such staggering success at the box office are certain to find it well-worth revisiting on Ultra HD Blu-ray. My appreciation for what Ryan Coogler and company have accomplished with Black Panther has only grown with successive viewings, this disc boasts a truly spectacular visual presentation, and every last one of its extras is worth setting aside the time to explore. While I am disappointed by Disney's insistence on stomping out dynamic range in their recent spate of titles, their flattening of the audio is hardly ruinous enough for me to dissuade anyone from picking up what is otherwise such a compelling release. Very Highly Recommended.
On a Sadder Note...
Bill Gibron wrote for DVD Talk for a full decade, contributing more than a thousand reviews in all, along with his exceptional work at sites like PopMatters and Film Racket. Fellow XTC fanatics may also have known Bill from the Chalkhills mailing list, as I did before hammering out movie reviews was even a glimmer in my eye. Bill passed away this past weekend and will be missed immensely. Take a moment and read one of Bill's reviews in his honor.