This article contains plot revelations for Black Panther.
The reviews are in. The receipts have been counted. More than just an acclaimed box-office smash, Black Panther is a bona fide phenomenon. It’s no great mystery why. Ryan Coogler’s rollicking addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe has a terrific cast, a fascinating fictional backdrop, and a cool-as-hell soundtrack. It’s mostly (and blessedly) self-contained, with nary an Avenger or Infinity Stone shoehorned in to advertise a different MCU installment. And the film counts as a major, important victory for representation—not just as a rare, series-launching vehicle for a black superhero, but also as a mega-budget Hollywood tentpole starring mostly black actors, one that’s explicitly about black (and African) identity. There’s a lot to like about this movie.
Black Panther has something else going for it, something that should be a given but rarely is, something that surprisingly few modern superhero movies deliver: a terrific villain. Like, a really great one. Played by Michael B. Jordan, Erik Stevens (a.k.a. N’Jadaka, a.k.a. Killmonger) is arguably the genre’s best heavy since The Dark Knight—a comparison reinforced by the fact that he’s introduced, like Heath Ledger’s iconic and anarchic Joker, during a daring daytime heist. But Jordan’s bad guy is no clown. Far from an indiscriminate agent of chaos, he has real motives: personal, cultural, historical. And in his anger—a fury that looks an awful lot like righteousness in the wrong light—he comes close to emerging as the movie’s tortured soul. A truly sympathetic supervillain? That’s almost unheard of, especially in a Marvel blockbuster.
Jordan, who starred in Coogler’s Fruitvale Station and Creed, is an enormously charismatic actor. To play a deadly black-ops soldier with designs on the throne of Wakanda, the technologically advanced African utopia that Black Panther rules and protects, Jordan doesn’t just bulk up to superhuman proportions, his muscular torso covered in an almost tribal configuration of scars—one for each enemy his character has felled. Jordan also twists his movie-star charm into a magnetic militancy, a cold-blooded outlaw swagger. His Killmonger is a formidable foe, cool and scary. But he’s also a tragic figure, shouldering the burden of his own traumatic background and the immense weight of black suffering in general. Coogler positions the character’s pain as an emotional center right from the jump, kicking off the film with his origin story, not the hero’s. A 1992 prologue, set in the filmmaker’s hometown of Oakland, establishes the Shakespearean betrayal that hardens a preteen boy into a future assassin.
It’s a lot of dramatic freight to put on someone named Killmonger. But Coogler and his co-writer, Joe Robert Cole, reinvent this second-string villain, plucked from back issues of the Black Panther comic, into a complex voice of opposition, seductive in his radical reasoning. He doesn’t so much resemble his actual source-material inspiration as another prominent Erik from the Marvel rogue’s gallery: X-Men’s Magneto. Like Killmonger, one of the things that makes the X-Men’s primary adversary such a great villain—one of the greatest in comics history, really—is that there’s a certain persuasiveness to Magneto’s way of thinking. On a bad day, it’s not so hard to see moral logic in his desire to overthrow the oppressors and retaliate on behalf of the downtrodden.
Black Panther, which finds Killmonger plotting to arm black revolutionaries the world over (and, implicitly, to strike back at the kind of sanctioned terrorizers who put Oscar Grant in the ground), replaces the civil-rights metaphor of the X-Men comics with the real horrors inflicted on real people. That makes him more than just sympathetic. In his anti-colonialist motivations and his plans, it also makes him debatably justified: a one-man liberation army, come to right the wrongs of history. What’s that line about one person’s terrorist being another’s freedom fighter?
Since its gigantic opening weekend, Black Panther has sparked genuine, fiery conversation among writers and moviegoers about whether, just maybe, Killmonger is more martyr and stealth hero than villain, a debate that’s raged across reactive think-pieces and Twitter alike. (In another nod to Magneto, “Killmonger Was Right” has quickly become both meme and popular Twitter handle.) Whichever side one falls on that debate, its existence is impressive. How often does a comic-book supervillain inspire such waves of people offering defense and commiseration—beyond, perhaps, the nihilistic emulation of the Joker by internet trolls?
Killmonger isn’t just a physical and cerebral threat to our hero, T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman). He also challenges his values: If Black Panther is about this warrior-king coming to terms with his responsibilities to the rest of the world, then it takes the extreme version of that imperative presented by Killmonger—a war hawk’s hate-fueled, yet sympathetic scheme to avenge a history of violence against people of color—to help T’Challa reach his epiphany. In other words, Black Panther is a comic-book fantasia that actually allows the villain to confront and maybe even reshape the hero’s worldview. It puts the two in dialogue, with real ideological stakes to their life-and-death conflict.
That makes Black Panther an anomaly of the MCU, which up until now has suffered from a rather pronounced villain problem—a prevailing absence of psychologically interesting foes. The best one can usually hope for from a Marvel movie heavy are fun or interesting qualities: the sardonic humor of Tom Hiddleston’s Loki or Sam Rockwell’s Justin Hammer; the one-scene menace of Michael Keaton’s arms-dealing Vulture; the Machiavellian scheming of Daniel Brühl’s Zemo. At worst, these movies reduce good actors to terminally boring intergalactic conquerors, with no motivation beyond a mechanical, plot-driving lust for power. To find an MCU villain that even comes close to matching the swaggering but sorrowful Killmonger, you have to look to the small screen—specifically, to another character with “kill” in his name, David Tennant’s scary master of hypnosis, Kilgrave, from Jessica Jones. As with Jordan’s villain, there’s something real lurking behind Kilgrave’s menace—in this case, the insidious specter of abusive misogyny.
This villain problem isn’t unique to Marvel. Most of today’s superhero movies treat their bad guys like an afterthought: Hire a good actor, put him in an elaborate costume or makeup, and you’re done. Part of this has to do with the way that comic-book movies have evolved to increasingly privilege character over spectacle. The early blockbusters of the genre, like the Superman or Batman movies, needed colorful, flamboyant personalities to offset the mythic, monolithic qualities of the good guys, which is why the actors cast to play the villains were often bigger names than their heroes: Gene Hackman. Jack Nicholson. Arnold Schwarzenegger. These days—thanks in part to the influence of the glorified Robert Downey Jr. vehicle that launched a whole shared universe—the heroes have personality and internal conflict to spare. The villains are just the external threat; they don’t really challenge the values of the characters, because the heroes are constantly doing that themselves, in blockbusters that now resemble sprawling soap operas or ensemble sitcoms. The decreased need for a compelling adversary reached its apotheosis two years ago, when the major superhero movies just went ahead and pitted their superheroes against each other.
That makes Black Panther a throwback to a now-bygone age of superhero spectacles, a time when the genre believed in that old, essential comic-book philosophy that a hero is only as compelling as his archenemy. In some respects, T’Challa fits the profile of an old-school superhero: a costumed crime fighter with a secret identity, steely and virtuous, and heroic nearly to a fault. It’s not for nothing that one of the few criticisms being lobbed at this highly acclaimed movie is that its main character is maybe its least interesting.
Yet it wouldn’t be quite accurate to describe Killmonger as simply a revival of last millennium’s comic-book antagonist, a lively counterbalance to a less complex protagonist. There’s more power and wounded soul in Jordan’s scenes than the bad guys are allowed in most movies. A dream-sequence reunion between Erik and his slain father (Sterling K. Brown) might count as the most affecting moment in MCU history—if not all of superhero cinema—were it not for Killmonger’s final lines: “Throw me in the ocean with my ancestors that jumped off the slave ships,” he says, “because they knew death was better than bondage.” One can only hope that Killmonger, a supervillain complicated enough to stand (and die) on that sort of moral ground, represents the future, and not the past of the genre.