Aesthetics – 9/10
Tribal African inspired sets and costumes are eclectic, but effective, and always visually interesting. This film is superior in aesthetic value to the majority of superhero flicks, presenting things that are rooted in the familiar, yet unfamiliar, as opposed to Thor, which is much more fantastical compared to the Norse aesthetics that supposedly inspired it.
Cinematography and Special Effects – 8/10
The special effects are generally very effective, but there are plenty of seams to be found within the impressive visuals, from odd-looking war rhinos to CG stuntmen that look more like dull plastic than living people. In one of the early scenes, the action happens so fast that 24fps fails to reveal anything to the audience; this is somewhat effective though, as the villains being attacked by the Black Panther are frightened and unable to see what he is doing.
Sound Design – 5/10
Unfortunately, Black Panther suffers from “loudness wars” sound production. Loud things are not loud and everything has such an even volume that in terms of sound very little of the action has any real impact. Likewise, there is little that is interesting in the sound design itself – the noises are familiar and mostly presented in a familiar way; fantastical ships, guns, and swords roar and shimmer, but are missing the dynamic “oomph” of a proper action flick.
Score – 5/10
The score is mostly effective, but it cannot decide on a musical style, there is no cohesion between its eclectic music pieces, and the African-inspired instrumentation and rhythms are buried beneath traditional modern “dissonance” score-writing, devoid of any recognizable themes or moving melodies. The insertion of pop tunes amid the traditional score is obtuse, rather than reflective of any of the characters.
Note: I gave score and sound design half values in the total, since they do not contribute as much to the effect of the movie as cinematography and aesthetic design
Production Overall: 7.3
Characters and acting – 9/10
The real strength of the story lies in its characters, not just in who they are but in the constant revelations of backstory that show how they got that way. The villain, Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), has a valid story arc, a real rarity in superhero films. Likewise, T’Challa experiences a questioning of his truth and must grow to overcome challenges. All roles are exceptionally well-cast and well-acted, the younger actors easily keeping up with veterans like Forest Whittacre and Andy Serkis. Even the minor characters have their own identities and conflicts, including Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), who suffers social tensions due to her embracing of outside culture along with her growing appreciation of her nation as it is endangered, and General Okoye (Danai Gurira), who is torn between opposing evil and serving her homeland’s legal requirements, a clear conflict of means and ends with no real “right” thing to do (She also is forced to fight her husband, who experiences some of the same conflicts).
Plot – 8/10
The event sequence of Black Panther relies heavily on revelations to power the tension-release cycle of the story, but these revelations are effective and meaningful for the characters involved. The first act is slightly convoluted, where the primary antagonist initiates a few more steps than would be logically necessary to fulfill his plans; this may have been done to give more screen time to Klaue/Klaw (Any Serkis), a more obvious “boogieman” villain than Killmonger. By the second act, things fall into place and the story takes off. The twists are a bit predictable but executed well enough, and with enough style, that I didn’t mind. The political questions driving the plot were also of enough interest and importance that by the third act, we care about the outcomes of the characters because of the political concerns of Wakanda more than any personal attachment to any of them.
This is another strong-point of Black Panther – it asks many politically incorrect questions (Where does allegiance lie – to one’s tribe, nation, or race?), sets up a conflict between different ethnic ideologies (ethnonationalism, exhibited by the conservative Wakanda, and pan-racial supremacy, exhibited by the villain Killmonger), and doesn’t give the audience easy answers. T’Challa must find his own solutions to problems of the past and present, and though we may not agree with his solutions at the end of the film, the importance of the conflict isn’t lessened as a result of his choices. Each character has his own reasons for doing what he does, and the film shows us each of these perspectives. That’s the best conflict in the film.
All of this is far beyond what is normally shown in a superhero film, and although I disagree with the way many of the characters present the plight of the black race, I can understand why they think that; there are also characters on the other side of them, and while “colonialist” is casually thrown out as an insult, it is part of a redemption arc of a black character learning to appreciate a white person as in individual. I never thought of the movie itself as anti-European. It’s pro-African, and I perceive a strong distinction between the two.
Story Overall: 8.5/10
General Effect – 8/10
I’m not a strict fan of Marvel movies or superhero movies in general. Black Panther was a pleasant change of pace despite, or perhaps because of, the strong integration of story, politics, race, and ethnonationalism. Many of the fantastical elements were a bit too fantastical for me, with gadgets to rival any James Bond film being pulled out of hats left and right to fulfill plot needs. Many of these were uses of Chekov’s gun, and also what I sometimes call the Joan Rowling technique. This is when you introduce a piece of magic (in this movie it’s technology, but since it’s not based on real science it’s effectively magic) early in a story for one small purpose, only to have it solve a much bigger problem later on (think of polyjuice potion, for instance). In one particular non-magical case, a political ceremony (a ritual combat episode) provides the route for the rise of the antagonist and the resolution of the main plot conflict in the third act.
Overall, I enjoyed the ride, I enjoyed the characters’ conflicts, and I enjoyed the aesthetics enough to simply not notice or care that I had different politics than what was presented. I did object slightly to the conclusion of the film, which was an American-centric view of poverty and race, ignoring the grinding poverty and bloody conflict that terrorizes a billion people in sub-Saharan Africa. Wakanda’s actual (fictional) neighbors, who often have nothing to eat and no medication for deadly disease, are much more deserving of Wakanda’s grace than American kids who didn’t have a proper basketball hoop.