Excited for Black Panther? So are we. Which is why we’re rolling out obsessive coverage with Black Panther Week.
Spoilers ahead for Black Panther.
Black Panther just pulled off a Marvel Cinematic Universe first: A supervillain worth rooting for.
Sure, other MCU baddies have been charming (hello, Hela) or surprising (hi, Mandarin) or sympathetic (we see you, Loki). A couple of them have even made good points – Zemo and Vulture’s grievances felt legitimate, even if their methods of rectifying them did not.
But Michael B. Jordan’s Killmonger is all of those things, and something more besides. It’s a truism that every villain sees themselves as the hero in their own story; Killmonger is the first time this has actually felt true in a MCU movie.
Killmonger is a three-dimensional character
From the get-go, Black Panther treats Killmonger like someone who’s every bit as interesting as his heroic nemesis. In fact, it shows us Killmonger before it even shows us T’Challa; the second scene in the film is later revealed to be the first chapter in Killmonger’s origin story.
This treatment continues throughout the film, which checks back in with Killmonger periodically and gives him plenty of opportunities to reveal his motivations and his personality. He gets dramatic entrances and hero shots, and an exciting mission of his own. Contrast this to something like Thor: The Dark World, where the periodic check-ins with Malekith felt less like plot development and more like half-hearted attempts to remind everyone he existed.
Black Panther places less emphasis on what Killmonger wants than why.
Before Killmonger even meets T’Challa, we already know what his beliefs are, and how dangerous he can be. We also know he’s ruthless enough to kill his girlfriend rather than derail his mission, but that he might take a few seconds out of a heist to make out with her or grab a mask just because he was “feelin’ it.” (And because he’s played by Michael B. Jordan, he’s got charisma in spades.)
Killmonger’s time in Wakanda fills out the rest of his story: We learn about his relationship with his father and his hometown of Oakland, and become intimately acquainted with his tragedy. Taken all together, these details form a complete character arc. This isn’t some cardboard baddie thwarted in his quest to take over the world. This feels like a real man on a dark journey.
Killmonger stands for something
Speaking of which: It’s notable that Black Panther places less emphasis on what Killmonger wants than why. In most MCU movies (most of the recent superhero movies, really) it’s the other way around, and the what usually isn’t even that interesting.
It’s typically power, revenge, or both, and half the time I’ve already forgotten which before the credits roll: What the hell was it that Kaecilius wanted again? Or Ronan the Accuser? Or Yellowjacket? All that really matters is that we understand they must not get what they want, and that our superhero must be willing to do anything in his or her power to stop them.
In Black Panther, Killmonger wants both power and revenge, but for very specific reasons that speak to the deeper conflict at the heart of the story. His differences with T’Challa are as philosophical as they are practical. It’s kind of like if Captain America: Civil War had continued down the ideological rift between Cap and Iron Man, instead of chucking it to the side so everyone could fight over Bucky for 80 minutes.
Except, you know, more immediately relevant to us. Killmonger’s perspective is forged from the rage and sorrow that comes with being a black man in our world. He’s absorbed the horrors around him and he’s crying out for something to change, and he’s furious at the people he believes could fix it all, if only they could be bothered to care.
That political rift is echoed in his familial connection to T’Challa. Killmonger – N’Jadaka – is not merely a metaphorical brother of the Wakandan people, but a literal nephew of King T’Chaka and cousin of King T’Challa. And he was abandoned in Oakland the protect Wakanda’s secrets, in a more intimate echo of the way Wakanda turned its back on the outside world.
Killmonger is relatable … sometimes
In this way, Killmonger helps bring the blissful fantasy of Wakanda back down to Earth. He injects our real-world politics into their utopia, and holds them accountable for the suffering outside their borders. His methods are monstrous and his conclusions are twisted, but there’s something all too recognizable in his pain.
Killmonger’s methods are monstrous and his conclusions twisted. But there’s something all too recognizable in his pain.
At times, in fact, he feels more relatable than T’Challa himself. T’Challa is the superpowered king of a fictional African nation that has never been conquered; Killmonger is, as he describes himself, “a kid from Oakland running around believing in fairy tales.”
That bittersweet yearning we feel when we watch Wakanda, and wish with all our hearts that it could’ve been real? Killmonger’s desire for Wakanda comes from a similar place. The difference is that Wakanda is real to him in ways that it isn’t to us, and so that ache has transformed into festering anger.
All these complications and contradictions are encapsulated in his final conversation with T’Challa, which ranks among the most emotional moments in the movie. He recalls that his father told him Wakandan sunsets were the most beautiful in the world, and in a gesture of kindness, T’Challa brings him up to see one.
T’Challa also extends the offer to save Killmonger’s life, but the man is consistent to the very end. He declines, saying, “Bury me in the ocean with my ancestors that jumped the ship, because they knew death was better than bondage.” His death calls back to the one we saw much earlier in the film, when their fathers fought. But Killmonger is treated with respect by his king in a way his father never was.
Killmonger isn’t (completely) wrong
Much as we come to care about Killmonger, Black Panther never lets us forget he’s a villain. A particularly charming, tragic villain, perhaps, but he’s still the guy who brags about the hundreds of people he’s killed, who poisons a museum historian and shoots his own girlfriend, who’s eager to slaughter anyone who stands in the way of the new world order that he’s imagined.
By the time he’s sitting on the throne and barking that “the sun will never set on the Wakandan empire,” echoing the words of white colonizers throughout history, it’s clear he’s become the very monster he claims to hate.
At the same time, however, it also never shies away from the fact that Killmonger’s kind of got a point. His basic stance – that Wakanda should take a more active role in helping their brothers and sisters around the world – is echoed more reasonably in Nakia’s insistence that the country should do more to provide aid and share their resources and knowledge.
Their arguments do impact T’Challa. His very last scene shows him promising the United Nations that Wakanda will no longer stand in the shadows. (Which will surely seem like even more of a blessing once Thanos brings an Infinity War to our planet.)
The best villains are the ones who illuminate or expose something about their heroic foes – think the Joker and Batman, or Magneto and Professor X. Killmonger did just that, and deserves to be among their ranks.
T’Challa’s most distinctive accomplishment as a superhero isn’t defeating the supervillain. Pretty much all superheroes get around to that eventually. It’s rejecting the usual no-you-move mindset, and sharing a change of heart.
And Killmonger, disappointed as he’d probably be to learn that T’Challa’s gone a much milder route, is the one we can thank for that.