Marvel’s Black Panther–the 18th film in Marvel’s Cinematic Universe, is possibly its most daring and inspiring film yet. Marvel rolled the dice on bringing one of its lesser known comic book characters to the big screen in hopes it would pay dividends and rise Marvel and Disney’s already high stock to even more astronomical numbers. The risk worked. Black Panther is on pace to be one of the most highest-grossing superhero films off all time.
Now that that’s been said, it should be also be duly noted that despite Marvel’s success, their previous 17 films have all one common trait: the lack of a true supervillain! Iron Man’s trilogy is a blatant example of this. Tony Stark faced a trifecta of forgettable bad guys–especially the last two installments: Ivan Vanko? the Mandarin?–no thanks. Black Panther ends this cycle of trash villains and delivers the best villain the MCU has ever seen produced to date: enter Erik “Killmonger” Stevens.
Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), who’s moniker comes from the self-inflicted scars that tells the number of kills he’s racked up, is head and shoulders above other Marvel villains. Director Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station, Creed) brilliantly wrote a tale about a villain who’s tale is equally tragic, as it is alluring. Michael B. Jordan is superb in this role, and really redeems himself after playing Johnny Storm in the cringeworthy Fantastic 4 reboot a few years back.
“Nobody can give you freedom. Nobody can give you equality or justice or anything. If you’re a man, you take it.”–Malcolm X
This isn’t your typical Pinky and the Brain mantra that so many movies such as these delve into. There are no plans of trying to take over the world (or blow it up). Killmonger just wants restitution for his people who have been oppressed, and if that means many lives (even his own) will be lost in the process, than that the risk he’s willing to take. For Killmonger, that restitution comes in the form of vibranium. A metal that is responsible for making Black Panther’s native homeland of Wakanda lightyears ahead in technology advancement. T’Challa, a.k.a. Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) wants to keep vibranium and Wakanda’s secrets isolated, with no involvement in international affairs. That has always been the Wakandan way. That’s why the nation has been able to thrive for centuries–but, that’s also where the conflict between Killmonger and Black Panther lie. How can Wakanda let our acensetors be kidnapped, beaten, killed, and taken into bondage, and not think to lift a finger? Wakanda continued to flourish while the rest of the world was crumbling at its feet.
It’s that reason, along with some other internal friction, is why Killmonger wants revenge. You almost find yourself becoming more sympathetic of his cause more than you do with T’Challa’s. Killmonger comes from a place that is a crystallization of the African American psyche in White America. Killmonger witnessed how the incursion of drugs deteriorated inner-city neighborhoods, the incarceration, and killings of people who’s skin looks his, crippled the foundations of families all over. This was all a result, in his mind, of not having the resources (i.e. vibranium) to overpower the oppressors.
So it goes without saying why Erik “Killmonger” Stevens has been the most complex, intriguing, and most important “villain” to grace a Marvel screen. Marvel needs to take note and realize their villains are just as important to the story as the hero. Without a compelling supervillain to help spearhead the tale you’re trying to convey to the audience it will inevitably bring a lack of depth to the story. Luckily for Ryan Coogler, he knew this from the jump.