This article is part of our Villains Week series.
Over the course of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, there has been a reoccurring element: the hero’s final showdown is always with a villain with their exact same superpowers. Iron Man fights a guy in an armored suit in both Iron Man and Iron Man 2. Captain America battles both Red Skull and Winter Soldier, who are explicitly said to derive their powers from the same super-soldier serum that gave him his toned physique. Ant-Man fights a guy who shrinks, and Black Panther fights a guy who uses the hero’s alternate costume. It’s a bit of a tired cliche, but whether you like it or not, this dualism between hero and nemesis creates a thematic meaning that is necessary to hero myth arcs and thus strengthens the narrative core of these superhero stories.
Let’s look at Black Panther, by far one of the strongest examples of this phenomenon. The hero fighting the villain with the same powers is a sort of destined duel set up and foreshadowed by the film from the very beginning. Early on, Prince T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) must fight M’Baku (Winston Duke) one-on-one in ritual combat for the right to rule, and the one-on-one part is super important. T’Challa has to prove to everyone that he is worthy of the throne on his own terms.
The film then sets up and reveals Erik Stevens, AKA Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), T’Challa’s cousin and “alternate prince” challenger for the throne. Where T’Challa was born in Wakanda and groomed for succession, Erik was orphaned and abandoned by his own uncle, T’Challa’s father. The late King T’Chaka made both these men what they are. The two princes are juxtaposed thematically; one is a merciful and diplomatic individual with insecurities about his ability to rule, and the other is a violent warmonger with absolute confidence in his plan for world domination. Their final confrontation is almost inevitable — and I think it bears noting that the film makes sure to portray that inevitability as tragic.
Yet, the film makes sure to anchor Killmonger’s views within some version of T’Challa’s own. From the movie’s outset, T’Challa is torn between maintaining Wakandan isolationism and breaking with that tradition in order to engage in international affairs. His “it’s complicated” ex-girlfriend Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) and best bro W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya) represent another dualism related to this issue; Nakia wants to use Wakanda’s superior technology to provide foreign aid, while W’Kabi advocates a more authoritarian, militaristic approach. W’Kabi’s decision to side with Killmonger during the schism is a reflection of this uncertainty on T’Challa’s part, and, fittingly, the moment where W’Kabi outwardly advocates Killmonger’s colonialism plan is after T’Challa has already been defeated and presumed dead.
Meanwhile, T’Challa gets a dose of a miracle cure for his coma and confronts his father in the spirit realm, undergoing a literal and spiritual death and resurrection where he comes to terms with the fact that the way he viewed the world before was wrong. This is an important part of both the Hero’s Journey and the Three-Act Structure. This is where T’Challa overcomes the uncertainty that plagued him throughout the film so far, and that cost him the initial duel against Killmonger. And it was indeed uncertainty that cost him that duel. Director Ryan Coogler uses subtle cinematography and a really solid setup to emphasize that T’Challa is morally conflicted about fighting his own cousin who has become a monster through the actions of authority figures whom T’Challa had trusted unconditionally to this point — the same men whose positive actions made him who he is.
The dualism exemplified by T’Challa and Killmonger is more than just two guys with the same powers duking it out. Because the villain is so similar to the hero, the hero is forced to confront some darker part of himself that could have become the villain, had circumstances been different. From this perspective, the villain is not so much an outside force as he is part of the hero’s own growth, and the fact that they use the same powers is more of an afterthought or aesthetic flourish. Black Panther’s triumph over Killmonger is as much an overcoming of his own insecurities and uncertainty as it is a physical victory.
This same principle applies to all the other Marvel villains with the same powers as the heroes they fight, and, indeed, the majority of superheroes whose movies emphasize these traditionally structured myth arcs. For an example outside the MCU, while Superman’s nemesis is Lex Luthor, he fights Zod in the movie Man of Steelbecause Zod represents a part of Superman in a way that Lex doesn’t and thus offers audiences a more complex adversary for the DC Comics superhero.
Ultimately, a superhero movie is about the hero. The villain exists to serve the hero’s growth, and Marvel’s extensive use of dualism in creating its villains is part of that. Not every villain has to overshadow his hero the way Heath Ledger’s Joker dominates The Dark Knight. Villains are important in superhero narratives, but not so important that they call for extensive, empty character studies relying entirely on controversy buzz to make thousands of dollars off of people who want to trigger the libs. They’re cool, sure. But ultimately a superhero film isn’t the villain’s story; it’s the hero’s.