Yes my last post was about Marvel, but that was before I saw Black Panther and oh man is there more to say now.
The most common criticism against the MCU is that it has almost no good villains. Loki is good, but can anyone even remember what Whiplash was all about? Or Yellowjacket? Or Malekith? I literally just had to look up that last name. Marvel never seemed to particularly care though. It mattered more for you to like the heroes, after all they’re the ones that’ll be back in the next movie. If you want compelling villains you have to check out the various Marvel TV series that are only technically part of the MCU.
Enter Killmonger, bar none the best villain in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Light spoiler warning! That being said if you haven’t seen Black Panther you are missing out on what looks to be a significant pop culture moment.
Erik “Killmonger” Stevens is an outsider with a grudge who attempts to usurp the throne of a hidden and extremely advanced civilization. He actually shares a lot in common with Loki, the previous record holder for Best Marvel Villain, but he edges the competition out by having an argument that’s actually relatable.
Wakanda hid itself while the rest of Africa was ravaged by colonists, then continued to hide while Black people across the world suffered subjugation and racism. Wakanda could have saved them, and with its Vibranium technology it very well could. If he can arm the oppressed around the world they could rise up and change things, with Wakanda in control.
Of course Killmonger is also bloodthirsty and dangerous. The guy scars himself for every kill he makes and there are MANY scars. His plan is similar to what the US used in the middle east and clearly that has gone very well over the past few decades. But the fact that the core idea sits in your head means he’s a little right. And to make Killmonger a little right, then T’Challa, Black Panther, has to be kind of wrong.
That’s how Black Panther makes Killmonger such a great villain. The movie allows its main character to be wrong. Black Panther uses its central premise as an afro-futurist wonderland as a cause for debate and not just a setting. Through conflict, our hero learns something from the villain and comes out the other side changed for it, with a better way to be a hero. That relationship between T’Challa and Killmonger brings to mind another Marvel movie from before the MCU.
Okay sure, Professor X and Magneto follow the MLK and Malcolm X parallel but that’s not what I’m thinking of here.
Yeah that’s the one! Wayyyy back in (oh god) 2004, Otto Oktavius walked into Peter Parker’s life on four metal tentacle claws and challenged him. He challenged Peter to take risks and try to get the girl. He challenged Peter to pick himself up and be a hero when he thought he couldn’t. He challenged Peter to save an out of control train. He wasn’t just a big bad villain, he embodied both the best of what Peter could be when he was sane, and the worst when his research took him over, and taught Peter to find his way down the middle of those two extremes.
Killmonger similarly challenges T’Challa to be better. Wakanda can’t just hide like T’Chaka wanted it to, but it also shouldn’t wage war against the world like Killmonger wants. It’s up to T’Challa to forge a new path for his country’s place in the world.
But what makes Black Panther so successful at this is how much time it spends telling Killmonger’s story. The movie is equally his to T’Challa’s, so that when you know his origin story and when you see him cry, you feel for him. That’s what gets his point of view in your head. That’s what makes you think he’s a little right.
That’s what makes a great villain.
PS, Am I the only one who really liked the Civil War Black Panther suit better than the new one he gets?