Warning: This article contains spoilers for ‘Black Panther.’
It takes quite a while for Black Panther to introduce its main villain, newcomer Eric Stevens, alias Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan). Perhaps it’s because once he does show up, he steals the show—and quite literally, too, bursting into action in one of the best heist intros since Heath Ledger’s Joker. One must, of course, give due credit to Michael B. Jordan’s incredible performance, but Marvel movies have something of a history of taking talented actors and turning them into the villain equivalent of a saltine—dry, flat, tasteless, and probably just a bit salty. Jeff Bridges’ Obidiah Stane, Lee Pace’s Ronan the Accuser, Guy Pearce’s Aldrich Killian, Christopher Eccleston’s Malekieth the Accursed, and perhaps the ultimate example, Oscar Isaac’s Apocalypse, are just a handful of some of the mediocre offerings Marvel movies have made of quality performers.
While recent Marvel movies have been on an upward trend, relatively speaking—Michael Keaton’s Vulture in Spider-Man: Homecoming, Cate Blanchett’s Hela in Thor: Ragnarok—they were not still not great as in Hall of Fame great, but as in impressive for a Marvel movie “great.” Killmonger is Hall of Fame great, and entirely unlike any villain the MCU has produced before.
In Magneto, Loki, and the Winter Soldier-ized Bucky Barnes, Marvel movies have shown an aptitude for crafting villains that are either redemption arcs in training or characters perhaps more accurately categorized as chaotic neutral with the occasional bad day. What a Marvel Movie had not really given us before Black Panther was a truly great villain who is not a future ally in training.
Future-ally-in-training villains are villains who fail. Their approach doesn’t end up working, so they end up taking a different one. Truly great bona fide villains, in a sense, win. They are not forced by the heroes to change, it is they who change the heroes. It is not possible to have a great hero-villain story where the villain’s presence does not have a lasting impact that extends beyond the end of the film. The reason why is that great villains point out their hero’s flaws—and importantly, flaws that would not be otherwise apparent as flaws. While the MCU has already given us villains that highlight their respective heroes’ flaws, they have been obvious shortcomings. For example, when Tony Stark’s attempted global defense program—aka a militarized, all-knowing AI—ends up going postal in Age of Ultron, it’s not a revelation so much as a no shit moment.
Making a great hero-villain narrative is not as simple as throwing a great hero and a great villain into a bowl and stirring to combine because the individual components cannot be made in a vacuum. One of the things that so often make a hero and an accompanying villain great is the way they reflect and illuminate each other. I’ve mentioned before that there is no magic formula for a great villain, and one of the reasons why is because of what we might call hero-villain interdependency. They have to be tailor-made to fit. Truly great villains are foils of their respective heroes, and vice-versa. Like distorted mirror images, they are often at once opposite and, at least in some regards, uncannily similar.
Many of the greatest hero/villain pairs to grace screens so far in the 21st century fit this pattern—agonistic halves of something resembling a whole. Rey and Kylo Ren in Star Wars, two desperately lonely souls searching for purpose and belonging while trying to deal with the weight of their extraordinary, intimidating powers. Professor X and Magneto, both determined to protect and serve their fellow mutants but with very different ideas about what kinds of sacrifices are appropriate to make in service of that end and how humans fit into the mix. Frodo Baggins, the everyman hero, and Gollum, the monster he risks becoming. Jon Snow and Ramsay Bolton, bastards both driven by a desire to prove their worth and emulate their fathers’ (well, father-uncle, in Jon’s case) best-known qualities—the former’s honor and the latter’s Machiavellian cunning. Bruce Wayne, a billionaire who creates the Batman persona to fight the corruption within the system with a strict code of vigilante conduct, and the Joker, a loose cannon of a man whose love of destruction cannot be boiled down to a desire for money nor power in any traditional sense.
And then there’s T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) and Killmonger. One of the most striking parallels between them is that we do not have to guess that T’Challa had the potential to go down a vengeful path similar to his foe—we saw it happen in Captain America: Civil War. Following the explosion at the U.N., T’Challa is not only determined to kill Bucky Barnes but also not opposed to doing what he must to remove anyone that stands in his way. Seeing how quickly Zemo’s manipulations caused the Avengers to implode becomes an eye-opener for T’Challa, the grounds for an epiphany that allows him to turn away from what could have easily become a destructive path, a revelation that comes early enough that he is able to turn back from this path before doing any damage that could not be undone. And after all, ultimately, Bucky Barnes was framed for that crime. King T’Chaka was not. He did kill his brother, leaving behind a nephew and effectively denying the boy any possibility of connecting with his own identity and heritage.
T’Challa and Killmonger both lose their fathers suddenly in violent attacks. But when T’Challa loses his father, he inherits a throne. When Killmonger loses his father, he loses any connection he could have had to a Wakandan identity. While T’Challa is not T’Chaka, until facing Killmonger and learning truths his father would have rather kept hidden, T’Challa places his father on a pedestal as his reference point for what a good man and a good king should be. He seeks to be his father, to emulate his father in all things, until Killmonger lays bare the whole truth.
Having heroes or the society they represent and protect create the monsters they then must face is a much-loved narrative and for good reason. It’s got the huge potential for emotional and intellectual heft, and when done well, an incredibly compelling elegance. And ultimately, it rings true. We do create our own monsters, both as individuals and as a society. In the past the MCU has had plenty of hero-created monsters. About 70% of the time the hero in question is Tony Stark. But the Stark-made evildoers either got the chip on their shoulders during Stark’s bona fide jackass era before he entered his post-Iron Man semi-reformed jackass persona or were the result of post-reformation “my bad” moments—e.g. Sokovia. Though many of Killmonger’s actions are indefensible, there is a sense in which his anger is righteous. And in this sense he “wins” by showing our hero he is not as heroic as he thought—and that his hero was not the hero that he thought—but in the end, Killmonger, once again like several great villains before him, also wins in a more literal way.
It is only by technicality, really, that T’Challa can manage to justify his return to power. After all, Killmonger doesn’t overthrow him in a coup, he challenges him to a ceremonial combat—something that Wakandan tradition decrees his birthright—and wins in a fair fight. It is only because T’Challa does not verbally admit defeat before being thrown over the edge of a waterfall that he can make the case that his return is not a coup. And when he makes his comeback, round two doesn’t take place under the same conditions as round one—instead of facing each other in a flat, open meeting place, equally stripped of enhanced capabilities, it takes place deep in the futuristic depths of Wakanda’s underground automated Vibranium train delivery system, new territory to Killmonger that T’Challa knows like the back of his hand. Yes, they are both enhanced with the aid of the same magical plant, and wearing the exact same model of super-suit, but again, T’Challa is far more experienced with both of these things, with their strengths and limitations, than Killmonger is. From certain ethical standpoints, the moral arguments that keep T’Challa on the “good guy” side of the equation are actually somewhat precarious.
Again, this is familiar territory for great villains. Batman has to break more than a few of his usual rules to capture the Joker in The Dark Knight, and as J. M. Tyree writes in the Spring 2009 issue of Film Quarterly, “neither the rule of law nor the vigilante justice doled out by the Dark Knight feel very satisfying,” and the Joker gets what he ultimately wanted through the total corruption of Harvey Dent, even though he botches the getaway. Similarly, in Game of Thrones, Ramsay Bolton succeeds in taking hold of Winterfell, and, through ruthless emotional manipulation and superior strategizing, would have absolutely slaughtered Jon Snow’s forces if not for Sansa’s last-minute reinforcements brought in from the Vale with the help of Petyr Baelish.
A good hero is sufficient to provide a few hours of quality entertainment, but it takes a great villain to raise a classically structured superhero film to the next level by pushing the narrative out of the realm of trite “good guy fights the bad guy, good guy wins” territory. With Killmonger, what Black Panther delivers instead is a story that reminds us that neither justice nor vengeance can right past wrongs. But by learning from the mistakes of the past, we can endeavor to keep these cycles from repeating in future.