The Marvel Cinematic Universe isn’t really known for its iconic, well-rounded villains, as for every Thanos and Loki, there’s a Malekith and a Whiplash. But there is at least one exception to that rule: Michael B. Jordan’s Erik Stevens, a.k.a. N’Jadaka, a.k.a. Killmonger. Unlike Loki or Thanos, who were both probably destined to become villains, Killmonger was—at least the way he sees it—forced into a villainous role as a reaction to the injustice of the world. After learning about the life in Wakanda that was taken from him by King T’Chaka, who murdered his father N’Jobu, and the centuries of cruelty suffered by Black people in general, Killmonger decided that the only way to find justice was by tearing the world down. In Black Panther, he fails. On What If…? this week, he succeeds, while leaving a significant body count behind in the process.
The episode starts right where the MCU itself starts: Tony Stark is in a Humvee in Afghanistan, having just pitched some of his new missiles to the U.S. military. In the regular reality, he gets attacked by a terrorist organization known as the Ten Rings and ends up becoming a better person and a superhero. This time, though, Killmonger shows up and rescues Tony from the Ten Rings before he can be captured, murdering the would-be kidnappers and pretty much immediately becoming Tony’s new best friend. Having not spent any time in the cave, then, Tony returns to the United States with an even stronger conviction to build more and better weapons—especially when Killmonger reveals that he was working undercover with the Ten Rings and therefore knew that Obadiah Stane had ordered the assassination attempt. Within a few minutes, the entire plot of Iron Man is completely undone.
Pepper Potts is suspicious, as she is generally the smartest person in most rooms, but Rhodey (Don Cheadle does more here than in his Emmy-nominated The Falcon And The Winter Soldier appearance) says Killmonger’s record checks out and that there’s no reason not to trust him. Tony, meanwhile, is impressed with Killmonger’s doctoral thesis on extremely anime unmanned combat drones (“What? I like anime,” he says, because both Killmonger and Michael B. Jordan are cool). The problem, as you might be able to guess, is that the drones conveniently need vibranium to work, and there’s only one guy who knows how to get vibranium: Killmonger’s villainous Black Panther ally Ulysses Klaue (finally, Andy Serkis gets to play an animated version of a character he previously only played in live-action).
Rhodey meets with Klaue to buy some vibranium, but when the Black Panther shows up (Chadwick Boseman, popping up again even though Marvel made it seem like he would only be in that one episode), Killmonger takes the opportunity to double-cross everyone and murder both Rhodey and T’Challa. I don’t mind that What If…? is repeatedly throwing out these unexpected appearances from Boseman, but it does take some of the fun and optimism out of the Star-Lord episode now that we know that Boseman plays a more traditional version of T’Challa in a number of places in this show. On the other hand, maybe the creators of the show deserve credit for not milking it every week that Boseman makes a posthumous appearance, especially when this episode both has a funeral for his character and brings him back as a panther spirit to try and pass some words of wisdom onto Killmonger.
Anyway, Tony knows that Killmonger killed Rhodey, so he summons one of his new combat drones and attacks Killmonger, but all he really does his manage to rip off Killmonger’s shirt (apologies to anyone in the audience who needs a new retainer). Killmonger murders Tony and frames Wakanda, convincing the U.S. government to put the new combat drones into action and send them off to attack. He then sneaks into Wakanda, murders Klaue and presents him as the guy who killed T’Challa and framed them for murdering Tony Stark, and he positions himself as the only person who can defend the nation from the invading Americans now that T’Challa is dead.
T’Challa’s parents, Angela Bassett’s Ramonda and John Kani’s T’Chaka, foolishly buy it, and Killmonger suddenly finds himself leading the Wakandan army against an invasion that he planned. The ensuing battle is pretty well done, as the fight scenes in What If…? usually are, and there’s one shot of the drones approaching in the distance where you see their red eye lights blink in from far away that feels very Nausicaä Of The Valley Of The Wind (undeservedly high praise, given some cheap animation in an early party scene here and sketchy backgrounds in Tony Stark’s workshop, but it’s what I thought of when I saw it).
Killmonger and the Wakandans win the fight, at least partially because Killmonger is controlling the drones, and his heroism in the battle convinces T’Chaka to make him the new Black Panther. It also convinces T’Chaka that maybe Wakanda should start actively promoting its interests in the rest of the world, which is to say by killing people (Killmonger’s goal in the movie). The episode ends with Shuri showing up at Pepper Potts’ office with proof that Killmonger is bad, and that’s… it. Killmonger wins, a lot of people are dead, and the only hope to stop his rampage is pre-teen Shuri (because this takes place around the same time as Iron Man) and Pepper.
I’m starting to notice an issue with these darker What If…? episodes where the writers only really have two ways to get out of a story: Either everyone dies and the universe is doomed, or there’s some last-minute twist that reveals that the universe is doomed in some other way. This episode in particular isn’t really a complete story, it’s just an exploration of what would happen if Killmonger had been there when Tony Stark got kidnapped. The show is just called What If…?, though, not Here Are Some 30 Minute Marvel Movies, so I don’t know how strongly it’s worth objecting to that. Then again, Disney’s mid-season trailer for What If…? did seemingly reveal that characters like Captain Carter, Star-Lord T’Challa, and Bad Doctor Strange are going to come back, so maybe there’s a reason some of the stories have such abrupt endings.
- What’s the What If? What if… Killmonger had been working undercover with the Ten Rings and found out about the plot to assassinate Tony Stark? (I guess.)
- Did they cheat? Yes, a little. It’s another messy break from the mainline reality, but I’m assuming it was built on the revelation that both Tony and Killmonger had been to Afghanistan at some point (it’s mentioned in Black Panther as one of the places where Killmonger fought as a soldier).
- Did The Watcher interfere, even though that’s the one thing he must never, ever do? I mentioned last week that there’s a trend of him becoming more active, and in this episode you fully see him standing there as he talks about the nature of alternate realities. He didn’t interfere, but he’s very close to doing it.
- When Tony Stark sees Killmonger’s anime-inspired drone concept, he says, “Worst-case scenario, we’ll end up with the world’s most expensive Gundam model.” In other words, Mobile Suit Gundam exists in the MCU. Reader: As a noted Gundam fan, I clapped and cheered at that reference. Also, Gundam models (or “Gunpla”) can go for over $1,000, so they’re pretty expensive as it is.
- That being said, you can tell Tony Stark is not an anime fan because his version of the drones look more like Bastion from Overwatch. Maybe Tony Stark is an e-sports gamer?