I never expected Erik Killmonger.
With so many one-dimensional Marvel villains as my guide, my hopes for Black Panther’s villain were tempered from the start. Sure, Michael B. Jordan looked cool enough during the film’s marketing campaign–heralded by energizing rap beats and donning an outfit straight from a Kanye West fashion show–but I didn’t anticipate substance under the shiny veneer. I assumed Killmonger would simply blaze through Black Panther, hurling uninformed pro-Africana vitriol at our heroes before buckling under the weight of his own uncontrollable chaos.
Yet, Killmonger’s descent into villainy is less like the downward spiral of a madman and more like the ailing battle cry of a forgotten son. For what feels like the first time in Marvel’s cinematic history, we have a powerful antagonist that can inspire both chilling fear and sincere empathy. This is an incredible feat for any villain, but particularly for a black one.
Killmonger is a revolutionary character not just in the MCU, but commercial cinema more broadly.
So who is Killmonger? While there are key differences between the character’s comic book and cinematic histories, the consequences are the same. N’Jadaka of Wakanda is abandoned by his ancestral home for to the sins of his father. As a child he is a stranger in a strange land, a refugee in the hostile New World. And when he returns to Wakanda as an adult, he finds reintegration impossible. His understanding of the land’s ancient customs is rudimentary and explicitly dismissive. His imperialist vision for Wakanda’s future—pulled from noble ideas of black liberation, but mutated into self-serving methods of revenge—clashes violently with the nation’s longstanding isolationist mandates.
But there is something specifically sympathetic in Killmonger’s madness, which is why so many have resonated with him already. His backstory is intimately tied to the generational trauma and isolation imposed on many black communities in the diaspora. When Africans were forcibly enslaved by white colonizers and transported to the United States, they passed through what is now sometimes referred to as The Door of No Return. The Door represents the disruption of historical and cultural continuity these Africans first experienced in slavery, and the trauma that has been unwillingly passed down to their descendants ever since.
The diversity of modern black identity outside of Africa exists on the other side of the Door, forever divorced from its origins. But the cultures tied to legacies of these enslaved Africans have also transformed past this point of colonization. In trying to reconcile their present identities with Africa now, diasporic communities often long for an Africa they cannot return to. In turn, the continent struggles to embrace its lost people who are now strangers despite a shared past.
Black Panther carefully navigates the fraught realities of global blackness with Killmonger.
In his deluded radicalism, Killmonger channels the black pain from this failed reconciliation. His father filled his young mind with dreams of Wakanda’s excellence, yet he is denied access due to his presence on the other side of the Door. He has no knowledge of his ancestral history or his present family, and he lacks the connection to a rich culture that could have nurtured the peaceful formation of his identity. Fundamental aspects of his humanity have been denied to him all his life, and their absence fuels his all-consuming rage and sorrow.
However, this does not mean we should excuse Killmonger’s twisted philosophy. His methodology of global black unity is a flawed and oppressive replication of imperialism, which stands in stark contrast to more viable solutions Lupita Nyong’o’s Nakia offers. While she believes in the transformative act of Wakandan humanitarian aid, Killmonger wants to incite terrorist attacks around the world in a violent uprising to protect black lives and solidify Wakanda as an empire. He is deeply misguided.
But in his complex malevolence, Killmonger is a revolutionary villain in not just the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but in commercial cinema broadly. Hollywood has often failed its black characters in general, and black villains in particular. Moviegoers rarely see a black villain who is more than a shadowy figure or an outrageously racialized menace: consider the multitude of nameless thugs and gangbangers littered across movie screens. Who can we even cite that transcends basic one- or two-dimensionality? Electro from The Amazing Spider-Man 2? Vernita Green from Kill Bill? The list of thoughtful black villains is laughably short compared to that of morally blurry white ones.
I can’t help rooting for a future in which a villain like him can heal.
That’s why the nuance of Black Panther’s black villain is so refreshing. Killmonger plays a prominent role in his own oppositional narrative, using his screen time to firmly establish his story as a painful and tragic consequence of history. Not only does his character arc explain a unique form of black marginalization; it also acknowledges the powerful anguish that a black individual can feel within their own identity. Black Panther carefully navigates the fraught realities of global blackness with Killmonger and asks you to understand him, even if you can’t forgive him. To see him alongside the film’s celebration of Africa is a rare and incredibly powerful form of Pan-African solidarity.
Yes, Killmonger is ruthless in Black Panther, but the tangible horrors of his history offer believable motivations. They make Killmonger feel human, an unlikely accomplishment in the MCU. And even though his story has ended, I can’t help but root for a future in which a villain like him can heal.