Written By: Nick Poulimenakos
*SPOILERS FOR BLACK PANTHER & THOR: RAGNAROK BELOW*
For years now, Marvel films have long been criticized for its handling of villains. Fans bear witness to the fluctuating trend of villains being produced by Marvel Studios, Fox and even Sony as characters such as Magneto, Loki, Doctor Octopus and William Stryker had viewers in the palm of their hands whenever they graced the screen. At the same time, lackluster writing and character development made way for Christopher Eccleston’s Malekieth from Thor: The Dark World and Corey Stoll’s Yellowjacket from Ant-Man to cement their place amongst the worst antagonists seen in a superhero film.
This leads us to 2017, where Marvel, specifically Marvel Studios and Disney, experienced a hot streak as they produced three well-developed villains in Kurt Russell’s Ego, Michael Keaton’s Vulture and Cate Blanchett’s Hela. Additionally, Logan made an impact of its own with the grounded, more visceral villain in Boyd Hoydbrook’s Donald Pierce and his band of mutant-hunting reavers. All four were great but none had reached the level created by the likes of Magneto or even Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight. Marvel’s villain problem, as coined by disgruntled fans, had been fixed in a way but fans were still looking for the one character to turn the tide.
Enter Black Panther, a film that has shattered box-office expectations and has gone on to become one of the most critically acclaimed comic book movies in history. Critics and fans alike have praised the film’s relevant and topical themes as well as the performances, visuals and costumes design and musical score but one aspect of the film has received more attention than anything else. Michael B. Jordan stars as the film’s main antagonist, Erik “Killmonger” Stevens who is unlike any villain the MCU has produced before. In every scene, Killmonger becomes more and more complex and intriguing and fortifies his legacy as not only the MCU’s greatest villain, but the greatest villain to ever appear in any Marvel film.
As stated, Marvel has experienced numerous periods of successful villains but they can all be tied together with one common thread. While examining the characters of Magneto, The Winter Soldier, Loki and even Vulture to a certain extent, each has a redemption arc placed in front of them near the end of their stories. The Winter Solider was brainwashed into becoming a villain so Captain America works towards bringing the old Bucky back. Professor X continuously see’s the good inside of Magneto which is why he fights alongside him in certain situations. A truly great villain is not a future ally in the making and Black Panther gives viewers exactly that.
When we meet Killmonger, he is examining artifacts in a British museum, explaining to the curator that one specific artifact was stolen by the British from Wakanda, something that has been done to plenty of other African nations. From there, we watch as the son of Prince N’Jobu meticulously and viciously fights his way into the isolated nation of Wakanda in an attempt to overthrow the king to fulfil his goal of fighting the oppression of Black people all around the world. In retrospect, it is a noble goal as Killmonger knows that Wakandan weapons can greatly help in the fight against subjugation and racism. Similarly to Magneto however, he goes about it in ways that are far too extreme, resulting in T’Challa aka. The Black Panther, looking to stop Killmonger from unleashing this power onto the world. While T’Challa may have stopped Killmonger, he still technically loses the battle. A truly great villain is someone who, in some way, wins in the end. It is not them who changes, but the hero who has to reflect on everything that transpired. Killmonger forces T’Challa’s hand, opening his eyes up to what the rest of the world has done to people like them over the course of hundreds of years. He points out flaws that would have most likely gone unnoticed and actually changes Wakanda for the better, albeit in a less violent and domineering way.
This is why Killmonger has the edge over characters like Loki, who has consistently been hailed has Marvel Studios’ greatest cinematic villain. In a span of four movies, Loki has flip-flopped between tragic hero to vengeful villain and finally to anti-hero. He is one of the company’s most fleshed out characters but this is in part due to him now leaning towards the hero side. As evidenced in Thor: Ragnarok, Loki may still have tricks up his sleeve, but when push came to shove, he put the people of Asgard above himself and assisted in the fight against Hela. Loki can no longer be classified as a villain.
Additionally, what makes villains great is the hero they get to work off of. Several Marvel films have given us stellar hero/villain pairs that represent two halves of something similar to a whole. Loki and Thor are two brothers who fight for their father’s approval as well as search for their place in the vast Marvel-verse. Magneto and Professor X both believe in saving Mutant-kind but operate on opposite ends of the spectrum, where one believes in equality amongst all species and the other fighting for mutant superiority. T’Challa and Killmonger follow in the same mold but take the “two sides of the spectrum” concept to new and exciting heights.
Ryan Coogler expertly positions the Killmonger/T’Challa relationship as the focal point of Black Panther as we watch Killmonger go down a path T’Challa almost fell victim to. Captain America: Civil War see’s T’Challa losing his father in a terrorist attack by Helmut Zemo, who in turn, frames Buck Barnes for ordeal. T’Challa then goes on a one man revenge mission to avenge the life of the former king of Wakanda. However, after realizing the truth and seeing the error in his ways, T’Challa chooses to spare Zemo, not wanting to let vengeance consume him. This is where the difference plays out. After losing his own father, at the hands of T’Challa’s father T’Chaka nonetheless, Killmonger becomes filled with hatred and dedicates his life to taking down the Wakanda side of his family. He spends his life watching the oppression his father constantly spoke of, never forgetting his main goal of spreading Wakanda’s Afrofuturism technology. T’Chaka singlehandedly ripped away any hope that Erik would one day see the Wakandan sunset when he abandoned him in Oakland back in 1992. As the viewer, it is hard not to sympathize with Killmonger while still seeing that T’Challa is in the right.
Coogler reinforces the notion of we create our own monsters. While this is a common trait in Marvel films (Tony Stark literally being the cause of I’ll say 35-40% of the MCU’s rogues gallery), Black Panther brings the concept into a new light, showing that the monster’s actions here may not be redeemable, but they sure do garner an examination. Killmonger goes to great lengths to ensure that his plan does not fail, even going so far as to kill his girlfriend to avoid any kind of complication. When T’Chaka abandoned the young Erik Stevens in Oakland, he created something far worse than anything faced before. A broken man with nothing to lose and a purpose. In the same vein as The Joker in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, Killmonger does in the end succeed in disrupting the nature of how Wakanda operates as well as hopefully securing a less oppressive future for black people around the world. With Nakia and Dora Milaje general Okoye behind him, T’Challa announces that Wakanda will be offering their resources to the rest of the world for the first time ever. Looking back at Magneto, he has never been able to change Professor X’s viewpoints on how to deal with humanity’s oppression of mutants which leads him to sometimes working with the X-Men to fulfill his goals. Killmonger on the other hand never settles to work with T’Challa as he could have never anticipated that he would have agreed with his ideals. Earlier in Black Panther, Nakia is unable to convince T’Challa that Wakanda should offer aid to outsiders. This little scene may seem unimportant but in actuality, in provides reasoning to why Killmonger goes about the situation in the way that he does. If Nakia, the woman T’Challa loves more than anyone cannot convince him to take action in a less violent way, how could Killmonger if he politely walked into Wakanda and asked nicely? It is why he chooses to go about his plan in villainous ways. Killmonger is past the point of saving and he knows it. It is a plan with “now or never” circumstances and while his methods are borderline immoral (he almost killed Shuri, his cousin, without any hesitation), they are warranted and T’Challa knows that the monster his father created all those years ago had to be stopped by any means necessary.
A bonafide cinematic villain is one pushes the boundaries of a typical good guy/bad guy story. While it’s unfortunate that his story has been contained to one feature, Killmonger in Black Panther elevates the superhero villain archetype, showing fans that to truly move on from past wrongs, you must embrace them and learn from them. Within Michael B. Jordan’s brilliant performance, Killmonger is an agent of chaos, determining that he is the one who can break the status quo and fix humanity’s glaring flaws. His actions go beyond the plot of a typical Marvel movie as his motivations are far more relatable and realistic. A boundless villain is someone who believes they are the real hero of the story. With Magneto and Loki now treading on hero territory, Killmonger has entered the game with fully fleshed out character development that forces our protagonist to really look at the changes being presented to him. Killmonger’s impact on T’Challa and the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe will be remembered for years to come and that is why I believe him to be Marvel’s greatest cinematic villain.
Black Panther is in theatres everywhere now.