Back Comments (6) Share:
Facebook Button

Feature


T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) returns home to the hidden high-tech African nation of Wakanda to succeed to the throne and take his rightful place as king, following the death of his father. But, when a man named Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) appears, T’Challa’s mettle as king – and Black Panther – is tested when he’s drawn into a formidable conflict that puts the fate of Wakanda and the entire world at risk. Pitted against his own family, the king must rally his allies and release the full power of Black Panther to defeat his foes and embrace his future as an Avenger. (From Marvel’s official synopsis)

 Black Panther
Almost every time that I’ve sat down to review one of these Marvel Studios movies (always several months after theatrical release, of course), I’ve thought to myself “This was really the studio’s biggest test.” During their earliest movies, they had to prove that people were interested in comic book superheroes that weren’t named Batman or Spiderman. Joss Whedon’s Avengers (2012) had to prove people were interested in their connected universe. All of the sequels needed to prove that the originals weren’t flukes. Further movies would have to establish galactic, subatomic, and mystic corners of that shared world. At this point, I need to admit that Marvel generally knows what they’re doing (even their worst movies are reasonably entertaining) and that they’ve earned enough approval to at least break even on every chance they take.

Still, it feels like there was a lot riding on Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther. It wasn’t simply a matter of introducing yet another Marvel cornerstone to the cinematic universe. Fans have been steadily acquainted with Wakanda, its exports, and citizens throughout other Marvel films, most specifically Whedon’s Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) and the Russo Brothers’ Captain America: Civil War (2016), but this was a stand-alone movie – one that was headlined by the first black mainstream superhero, featuring only two non-Wakandan, white characters with any significant screen-time, and needed to engage a worldwide audience without alienating the black audience it was speaking directly to. Sure, it could disrupt the new MCU status quo and be a mediocre achievement, but it could also end up disappointing the expectations of several generations worth of readers and fans. Based on the outstanding reception I witnessed when I saw the film in a packed theater surrounded by African Americans and African immigrants (mostly Somalian refugees and their families), I’m going to say Coogler and company pulled off a minor miracle. Honestly, following the anecdotal evidence of such a moving reaction (not to mention an athenaeum of glowing reviews and think-pieces), I feel like my standard movie criticism is pretty irrelevant. But I’ll try, anyway.

 Black Panther
Black Panther is a difficult character to write, let alone adapt into a relatively grounded, live-action drama. Beyond his incredible cultural significance is an understated, regal, yet sly and even funny character who was firmly established early in his creation. The Panther went on some wacky space adventures when writer/artist Jack Kirby took over for his first solo series in the middle ‘70s, but, for the most part, Don McGregor’s groundbreaking Jungle Action arc (1973-1976) set the mould. In this regard, T’Challa is probably more comparable to Superman or Captain America than Batman or Spider-Man. His dominant traits are easily defined, but his moral/ethical infallibility, unshakable dignity, and genius-level ability to out-strategize his enemies makes it all too easy to portray him as a stiff-lipped fuddy dud. On the other hand, it’s also easy to turn him into a typical American superhero who quips at his enemies while winking at his readers, or a gritty antihero with a fuzzy moral compass. Writers like McGregor and, later, Christopher Priest – whose late-’90s run helped define T’Challa as the politically-driven hero we see today – found ways to challenge the character and his readers without betraying his core traits. The movie version walks a similarly thin line between adult drama, social relevance, and comic book excess. While the Panther’s biblical arc of trial, death, resurrection, and triumph is simple and predictable on its surface, the genuine humanity instilled in the character’s sense of humour, relationships, and humility, along with Chadwick Boseman’s performance, ensures that he has layers.

Black Panther’s greatest accomplishment isn’t its solid interpretation of the title character, its awe-inspiring Afro-futurist visuals, or even its efficient consolidation of decades of comic book storylines. The vital component to expressing the film’s complex social message is personified by its villain, Erik Killmonger, who is brilliantly interpreted by the film’s writers and actor Michael B. Jordan (who probably deserves award recognition for the role). Throughout the comics, Killmonger is often characterized as the Anti-Black Panther. His goals are similar to T’Challa’s, but pushed to an extreme, due almost entirely to the fact that, by growing up in America, he has experienced the cultural horrors that T’Challa was spared behind the walls of Wakanda. The movie goes out of its way to sympathize with Killmonger, to the point that his sneering cruelty becomes a key reason to actively root against his machinations. More importantly, this sympathy doesn’t spring from a place of pity and the audience is practically motivated to think of him as the story’s antihero. In the end, he is the inciting force behind T’Challa’s arc, not because he nearly kills him, but because he uncovers moral dilemmas that the most powerful Wakandans had taken for granted. Beyond that, Killmonger’s love for his father helps T’Challa recognize the errors in his reverence for his own father and, when all is said and done, grow into a more ethical leader. Of course, time will tell if he has learned the correct lessons (obviously, Infinity War didn’t go too well for Wakanda…), but such challenges are the fundimental value of smart storytelling.

 Black Panther
The film also does an good job modifying its one white protagonist, Everett K. Ross. Martin Freeman portrays him somewhere between a typical, put-upon Martin Freeman character and the Ross invented by Christopher Priest. Priest very obviously modeled his Ross on ‘80s snarky sitcom Neocon, Alex P. Keaton, to the point that artist Joe Jusko drew him to look like actor Michael J. Fox (side note: Fox would’ve actually made a great on-screen Ross, had his health not been a factor). This early comic incarnation became a cypher for Priest to channel political incorrectness and general emotionally torture to humorous effect. The film gives Ross a more traditionally heroic role than perhaps he ‘deserves’ and his heroism can smell like a mandate to pacify jittery white audiences. However, Priest was so cynical about the whims of his predominantly white readership that Ross actually became the central storyteller and very nearly the main character of the series. He represented a satirical statement, but was also over-exposed by the middle of the run. I’d argue that Coogler has basically used Ross in a similar manner, but, given his greater faith in modern filmgoers (and a general need to make Ross at all likeable), he took a more understated role. In the movie, Ross isn’t as much a parody of white audiences, but a soft satire of white audience surrogates and token minority characters. He is consistently out of his depth, dependent on the black protagonists, and ultimately unnecessary to the story. Even his unusually specific skill set, that of a pilot, has a whiff of metatextual comment, because, in a typical action ensemble, such a specialized character would most definitely be portrayed by the lone black guy.

Coogler and company do such a good job with the difficult elements of adaptation that it’s easy to overlook how well they handled the easier stuff, especially story structure. Civil War did some of the heavy-lifting in this regard, specifically because it helped define T’Challa. But this isn’t Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017), where director Jon Watts was able to almost entirely circumvent the typical problems posed by origin stories – Coogler and co-writer Joe Robert Cole still had a lot of background to cover before they could even get to the central conflict. And they did it without making Black Panther feel like one and one-third of a movie, like Jon Favreau’s Iron Man (2008), Joe Johnston’s Captain America (2011), or really any superhero origin story you can think of off the top of your head. While I still think technical criticism is kind of moot in this case, I would like to close in noting that Coogler’s action sequences are a step above the average Marvel fare, as well. The first fight sets a pretty bad precedent with its dark photography and shaking cameras, but, past that moment, Coogler’s handheld approach isn’t overstated and the considerable efforts of the stunt coordinators & performers are easy to understand and appreciate.

 Black Panther

Video


Black Panther was shot using Arri Alexa digital cameras, with some scenes formatted for IMAX screens, and/or post-converted into 3D for theatrical screenings. This Blu-ray is presented in 1080p and a consistent 2.40:1 aspect ratio, instead of alternating between scope and 1.90:1, as it did for IMAX. Coogler and cinematographer Rachel Morrison do their best to recreate the texture and limitations of 35mm using anamorphic lenses, et cetera, and are largely successful. The artificiality of the green screen environments make their job difficult, but there aren’t many digital artefacts (i.e. noise, ghosting, sharpening inconsistencies) to get in the way. That said, I think the film’s biggest technical problem is the extreme contrast between daylight and nighttime scenes. While the idea of contrast is nice, the effect is sometimes jarring. Daylight scenes – the final battle in particular – end up blown-out, which doesn’t do the effects any favors, then the night scenes are so dark that it’s a little hard to tell what’s going on. Fortunately, this Blu-ray transfer is more even-keeled than the version I saw projected in theaters. Its tight details help fill out those big, bright shots (as well as bring out the intended lens-based artefacts) and the night shots, though still gloomy, aren’t completely indiscernible. The palette is relatively grounded, but certainly not limited, thanks to the eclectic, vivid costumes and set design.

I’ve read/heard rumours that Marvel gussied up some of the iffier CG during the climax. It might be true, but I can’t verify any difference myself. Again, the theatrical screening I attended was very dark, so everything looks better on the BD to me.

Audio


Black Panther is presented in DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 sound. The audio design is pretty typical for a big sci-fi superhero flick, but the lush African setting and unique properties of vibranium technology give the track some unique tricks. The stereo/surround field is not only utilized for explosions, car crashes, and war cries, but the echoey clangs of vibranium spears and buzz of the underground mines during the climax. Composer Ludwig Göransson’s (known for his Childish Gambino collaborations with Donald Glover) score and Kendrick Lamar’s ‘curated soundtrack’ do wonders to overcome that MCU musical slump (for the record, I think the studio’s last three soundtracks were pretty great). What it lacks in particularly hummable melodies, it makes up for in its thoughtful blending of symphonic, tribal, and hip-hop motifs. The perpetual use of big drum noises (both natural and machine-made) gives the LFE a nice additional boost as well.

 Black Panther

Extras


  • Commentary with director Ryan Coogler and production designer Hannah Beachler – Coogler’s inherent energy and warm rapport with his production designer helps to offset the occasionally awkward tone of this track. Content-wise, it works best when they’re delving into design aspects and breaking down the meaning of certain scenes for the characters, but falls a bit flat when the director loses himself discussing on-screen actions.
  • Director’s intro (1:23, HD) – Coogler quickly explains some of the film’s themes.
  • Crowning of a New King (5:34, HD) – Marvel brass and the filmmakers talk about the Panther’s introduction to the MCU in Captain America: Civil War, the character’s roots, and developing his first standalone feature.
  • The Hidden Kingdom Revealed (6:57, HD) – Concerning the creation of Wakanda’s diverse people (who are inspired by real-world tribal cultures), the production/costume design of their world, and the African languages used by the cast.
  • The Warriors Within (6:08, HD) – A look at the women of Wakanda, their central place in the story, and the actresses that portray them.
  • Wakanda Revealed: Exploring the Technology (6:16, HD) – As the description implies, this featurette investigates the design, development, and purpose of the vibranium-based tech/weapons.
  • From Page to Screen: A Roundtable Discussion (20:27, HD) – The most significant extra, aside from the commentary, is this roundtable featuring Coogler, executive producer Nate Moore, writer Joe Robert Cole, and comic series’ writers: Christopher Priest, Don McGregor, and Ta-Nehisi Coates. The participants discuss the history of Black Panther in comics, the themes borrowed from those stories, and the writers’ reactions to seeing the film for the first time (spoiler: they liked it a lot).
  • Four deleted scenes (6:53, HD)
  • Gag reel (1:38, HD)
  • Sneak peek at Ant-Man and The Wasp (2:26, HD)
  • Marvel Studios the First Ten Years: Connecting the Universe (8:39, HD) – Basically, an extended ad for selling Blu-rays and tickets for Infinity War, but an entertaining one.


 Black Panther

Overall


This is just about the best Black Panther movie I can imagine being made for mainstream audiences. It works as an extended origin story, it works as an action movie, it works as a political thriller, and it excels, due to its rich, thoughtful, and relevant themes. This Blu-ray looks very nice, sounds even better, and has a fair assortment of special features, though there’s certainly room for further exploration of the character’s comic book roots.

 Black Panther

 Black Panther

 Black Panther

 Black Panther
* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray, then resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.


Links: