By the time Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) graces the screen in Black Panther, director Ryan Coogler has already introduced viewers to the vividly imagined Wakanda—and the citizens that constitute the hidden utopia in East Africa. Everyone looks stunning, from the bald, bold, beautiful all-female bodyguards known as the Dora Milaje to the elegant Queen Mother Ramonda (Angela Bassett) to T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), the Black Panther himself. Infused with nods to African culture, the Afrofuturist look of Black Panther is steeped in history, but it looks like nothing else before it.
Erik Killmonger brings us back down to earth. We first see him at an art museum in London, wearing a denim shearling jacket and tinted glasses; a look that’s certainly a statement, but recognizable. Killmonger’s there to steal a Wakandan artifact, which unbeknownst to everyone else, is made up of vibranium, the alien metal that powers Captain America’s shield, Black Panther’s suit, and Wakanda’s futuristic technology. Killmonger and his lackeys kill security guards and grab the artifact, then he snatches a mask because, in his words, “I’m just feeling it,” and makes out with an accomplice in the getaway van—all of this accompanied by a filthy, bass-infused beat.
Eighteen movies (!) into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, you might be predisposed to writing off Marvel villains. The list of above-average Marvel villains on the big screen is as follows: Loki (Tom Hiddleston) in The Avengers and the Vulture (Michael Keaton) in Spider-Man: Homecoming. That’s it. If you told me you knew the name of the Guardians of the Galaxy bad guy, or whoever was standing in Thor’s way in Thor: The Dark World, well, I wouldn’t believe you.
The movies in the MCU have consistently failed to produce convincing antagonists. A primary reason for this Achilles’ heel is the fact everything has been building up to this summer’s Infinity War and the Avengers’ long-awaited showdown with the all-powerful Thanos (Josh Brolin). Every villain is a miscellaneous boss on the path to defeating Bowser; the audience knows it, and Marvel knows it. It’s hard to build any narrative tension when we’re aware of who’s waiting in the wings. And the MCU hasn’t helped itself by producing one-dimensional arcs for antagonists—the Ultrons of the world can vie for world domination only so many times before their actions become predictable. Part of what made the Vulture so refreshing in Homecoming was that he was just a regular guy trying to support his family in a crumbling economy—he just went about it the wrong way. (OK, like, really wrong, but still.)
“The road to hell is paved with good intentions” is a well-worn adage, but it spoke to the Vulture’s ethos in Homecoming, as it does with Killmonger in Black Panther. He’s Marvel’s finest villain, establishing a blueprint that the MCU ought to draw on in the future: Don’t just make the villain’s philosophy convincing, make it seem like he’s really the hero of his own story, and let him or her affect the hero’s own ethos in a profound way.
Though Killmonger is initially introduced as an American mercenary, that’s not exactly true. He’s half-Wakandan himself, the son of Prince N’Jobu (Sterling K. Brown) and an American woman, raised in Oakland. N’Jobu is killed in 1992 by T’Chaka (John Kani), T’Challa’s father, after N’Jobu sells vibranium weapons and refuses to head back to Wakanda to stand trial. Killmonger embraces what his father believes—that Wakanda should be spreading its futuristic wealth to disadvantaged black communities around the world, rather than keeping its resources a secret. This is Killmonger’s primary motivation for challenging T’Challa for the throne and title of Black Panther—which he’s allowed to do because he’s part of the royal Wakandan bloodline.
That the main conflict of Black Panther is a rumination on power and the responsibility that a black utopia has to marginalized people—particularly those of African descent—around the world shouldn’t be lost on viewers. This is a big-budget Marvel movie with a thought-provoking premise that has no easy answers. As T’Challa explains, revealing the country’s long-held secret would expose Wakanda to villains like Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis), who would use vibranium for their own insidious, power-hungry needs. But how noble is turning a blind eye to people in need? What does Wakanda owe to the rest of the world? This dichotomy doesn’t just separate T’Challa and Killmonger, but T’Challa and his ex-girlfriend Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), who’s chosen life as a spy helping people across the world.
Killmonger’s burden is the searing rage he feels for T’Challa, the byproduct of T’Challa’s father killing his father, which left Killmonger as a child in Oakland, isolated from the homeland he’d never seen. He’s caught between two worlds and doesn’t feel like he belongs in either. His anger clouds his judgment, and that ultimately becomes his downfall. The power of the character, however, isn’t the intensity of his emotions, but the ease with which the viewer can identify with them. Killmonger’s feelings and motivations are just as, if not more, natural to relate to as T’Challa’s.
The mark of a great villain is also the impact he or she has on a hero. When T’Challa learns the truth—that his father willingly left Killmonger in Oakland as a child, despite his Wakandan lineage—he empathizes with Killmonger and his perspective, even as he must defeat him.
By the end of Black Panther, T’Challa has created a Wakandan outreach center in Oakland, at the same apartment complex in which N’Jobu and Killmonger once lived, the implication being that it’s the first of many centers across the globe. In a mid-credits scene, T’Challa informs the United Nations that Wakanda is ready to share its insights with the world. There’s an obvious metaphor at play when a white U.N. member incredulously wonders what the world can learn from a Third World country—he comes remarkably close to calling Wakanda a “shithole”—that gives Black Panther an added resonance. But what T’Challa believes is resonant in and of itself: that great power comes with great responsibility. Just note that he wouldn’t have known how to put that into practice without Erik Killmonger.