WARNING: Spoilers for ‘Black Panther’ lie ahead!!!
I love Marvel Studios movies, but if you take a closer look, you’ll see that the villains they introduce are consistently weak (with the exceptions of Loki and Ultron, of course). As a fan who wants better for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, I’ve refused to get used to their poor villains. I even went so far as to write a blog post about it!
If I’m going to complain about the villains they get wrong, then by goodness, I’m going to highlight the ones they get right. With their newest film, Black Panther, they get it SO right. Black Panther’s Killmonger (played by Michael B. Jordan) is one of the greatest and most effective villains Marvel Studios has ever put to screen.
He answers my complaints
I wrote “Addressing Marvel’s ‘Villain Problem’” shortly after the release of Ant-Man, which saw the introduction and – like most Marvel films – unceremonious end of a poorly-developed villain played by a fantastic actor. In that particular post, I laid out a couple pointers on how to make villains better, and Michael B. Jordan’s Killmonger checks off all of these boxes. Does the movie show the villain doing non-villainous things? Absolutely. There’s a scene in Black Panther that takes place after the hero reaches his darkest hour that shows Erik before he became Killmonger. He talks to his father, who was killed for betraying Wakanda and has a really touching moment with him. This was when I first understood that this villain was something special. In a universe where the hero’s journey is prioritized above all other aspects, this scene added nothing to T’Challa’s personal arc and highlighted none of Erik’s villainous tendencies. It was a chance for the audience to see that Erik was a character first.
Upon looking back at some of my other points, I see areas where Killmonger met my expectations in ways that I did not expect. Was he a rich, white man? Thankfully, no. His character arc ran so much deeper than what we usually get from Marvel one-off villains. Did he have a sense of humor? Well…not really, but that’s okay! Director Ryan Coogler’s choice to prioritize story and character over laughs and “entertainment value” gave Jordan room to play Killmonger in a way that wasn’t necessarily humorous, but added so much more than entertainment to the villain. It’s in areas like this that Killmonger outshines any other Marvel villain and pushes into the realm of just being a good movie villain.
He poses a specific threat
In this video essay from Lessons from the Screenplay, the narrator dives into what makes a good villain by examining the relationship between Batman and the Joker. He argues that these three points are what makes the Joker a great villain.
- He is a true threat to Batman’s specific Batman uses his physical strength, intellect, and the manipulation of people’s fears to get what he wants. Those advantages don’t work on the Joker.
- He shares the same goal as Batman. They both fight for the soul of Gotham.
- By making Batman’s strengths ineffective, he forces him into situations that reveal his true colors. The Joker is able to strip Batman of his power and force him to change by making difficult choices that reveal his character.
In Black Panther, Killmonger poses a very specific threat to the hero. King T’Challa is a man who is just discovering how to be a good king to his people, following in the steps of his father. His strength is the power of the Black Panther and the support from his nation. Killmonger takes those powers away first in a figurative sense by killing Ulysses Klaue – something that T’Challa nor his father could ever do – and then by literally taking on the power of the Black Panther and Wakanda’s throne. Killmonger and T’Challa also fight for the same thing. They both fight for the future of Wakanda. Killmonger grew up in a world that oppresses, and he lived his whole life wanting to see the oppressed rise up and revolt against the oppressors. In his eyes, Wakanda has the means to do that. On the other side of that spectrum, T’Challa carries on his family’s legacy and traditions, not wanting to reveal his advanced kingdom to the world for fear of making it a target for conquerors.
This legacy, however, is what Killmonger ultimately uses to force T’Challa into changing. He makes him question his upbringing and his country’s purpose. Once Killmonger arrives in Wakanda, T’Challa learns that his father killed his own brother and left his brother’s son (Killmonger) an orphan. T’Challa’s father did this in order to preserve Wakanda’s secrecy, making the vision of his father as an oppressor all the clearer to T’Challa. This tough reality forces him and the rest of the Wakandan people to change their policy and begin outreach to people in need by sharing their advanced technology.
We empathize with him
It’s often said that a good villain sees himself as the hero of his own story. What that means is that his cause may seem like a noble one on the surface, but he takes drastic and unrighteous steps to fight for that cause. Killmonger’s desire to free oppressed people is a desire that most good guys have, and it’s one that we as an audience can relate to. We understand the desire to set one’s people free. The men and women who have stepped forward to do so are often some of the most revered figures in history. We understand Killmonger’s goal, and in many cases, it can be our own. But he takes things too far. He advocates for violence instead of peace. He doesn’t want unity, he wants the same oppressive culture but in reverse. This is where he becomes villainous.
Because his surface goal is technically a righteous one and we’re able to see him be human through an emotional dream sequence with his father, Killmonger isn’t just a bad guy to us. In his very last scene, when he has but one more thing to say, he asks T’Challa to bury him in the ocean “where his ancestors are buried.” We see Killmonger’s true character revealed to us. He’s a person. We see that he has lost. We see that he’s been hurt. And finally, we see that in some way, he’s right. The oppressed should be freed. But just…not by the means he thought necessary. We empathize with him and his righteous goal, which also makes T’Challa change his mind about Wakanda’s secrecy. T’Challa changes because of Killmonger. He chooses to share Wakanda’s technologies and reach out to the oppressed in peace.