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Black Panther by Ludwig Göransson (Review)

posted Feb 23, 2018, 1:54 PM by Kaya Savas

Black Panther marks the 18th film from Marvel Studios in the laid out Marvel Cinematic Universe that has turned $200 million blockbusters into “episode of the week” Saturday morning cartoons. However, for the first time this one actually feels different. We finally have something with a little more substance, and a Marvel film that dares to stand apart from the rest. We finally have characters that feel like they have something at stake, we have characters that feel vulnerable and a villain with a tad more complexity than just wanting power or revenge. The film feels almost Shakespearean at times, and while it has some weak points that are a product of the Marvel formula, it still manages to do something special and memorable. One of those special and memorable elements is Ludwig Göransson’s score.

Ludwig Göransson has been Ryan Coogler’s composer since his directing debut with Fruitvale Station. Ludwig also scored Coogler’s critically-acclaimed Creed and now follows him to the bigger stage of a Marvel production. But let’s look even further and see that Ryan Coogler was able to bring director of photography Rachel Morrison onboard who shot Fruitvale Station, as well as editor Michael P. Shawver who cut both Fruitvale Station and Creed. Michael B. Jordon was the lead in both Fruitvale Station and Creed, and now he comes onboard as the main villain. This reuniting of key creatives behind the camera made Black Panther a strong unified effort that felt cut from a different cloth.

The way Göransson approached this score by embracing traditional African music and chants may have seemed like an obvious way to do things, but in reality was a very bold and welcome choice to the sound of Marvel’s films. While in the past we’ve heard some very decent scores, it’s rare that some make themselves stand above that label of “generic orchestral heroism”. Henry Jackman’s aggressive and chilling Winter Soldier score comes to mind as one of the few mold-breaking scores of the past 17 films.

Göransson’s approach wasn’t just thematically bold and melodically driven; it gave Black Panther it’s own unique sonic identity. And this score wasn’t as simple as throwing in some African vocals and calling it a day; the music here really breaks down the rhythmic structure of traditional African sounds to use them in a scoring function. Black Panther’s theme is an aggressive blast of high brass that announces his presence like royalty entering a room. Since T'Challa is indeed a king, it makes perfect sense for his theme to be this extravagant blast of heroism accented in royalty. When the theme is layered upon some of the more traditional African sounds it bring with it some of those western symphonic sounds that we usually expect in a superhero film such as this. Some really rhythmic chanting is used in action sequences that almost signal danger and chaos. Another great theme is the one that is attached to the ancestral plane, this melancholic and theatrical motif carries the pain of the past and sort of accents the struggle between T'Challa and Killmonger as a tragedy.

If the score has anything setting it back it would probably be Killmonger’s theme, which feels just a tad too out of place and stylistically different from everything else. Göransson decided to give the antagonist, who is a war mercenary that grew up on the streets of Oakland, a very modern and hip-hop inspired motif with some woodwinds fluttering underneath it. This makes total sense given the character, and in a way it works. When we hear this theme play when Killmonger finds his way into Wakanda, it almost feels like a cancer or something out of place that has overtaken the beautiful and lyrical traditional African sounds. But in the end it’s a bit too on the nose and too contrasting with the overall score’s shape. It doesn’t add enough complexity to Killmonger who is actually a pretty complex character, despite the goofy comic-book name. For a second lets remember the thought process behind Hans Zimmer’s Joker theme in The Dark Knight. He wanted to create a sense of anarchy and a way to add tension by boiling everything down to a single note like a wire feeling like it was about to break and unleash. A more intellectual approach like that is what is keeping Killmonger from being a wholly fleshed out villain in a musical sense.

In the end though, this is such a fantastic score to a film that surprisingly wasn’t afraid of putting the jokey Marvel tone aside to tell a story with lots of heart and emotion. The score embodies the characters so well and tells a story that pulls us in. Nothing is over the top, down to the action cues which score the action with just the right amount of intensity. Black Panther’s theme isn’t overused so he never really feels like a superhero, but a real person who is coming back to right the wrongs that have been committed. Ludwig Göransson truly manages to write the most memorable score in the Marvel cinematic universe, and gives Black Panther the excitement and heart to make it unique and memorable.