COURTESY OF GAGE SKIDMORE/CC BY-SA 2.0
Michael B Jordan delivers a compelling performance as Killmonger.
If you’re a fan of superhero movies, odds are you’ve noticed that the villains are often not particularly interesting or challenging to the hero’s way of thought. They are kinda just there to kick start the plot and be a punching bag.
Of course there are a few exceptions: Joker in The Dark Knight, Doctor Octopus in Spider-Man 2 (the Tobey Maguire era) and more recently Adrian Toomes in Spider-Man: Homecoming. These villains are nuanced characters that not only augment the story, but also put our heroes in a situation in which they have to wonder if what they’ve been doing is morally “right.”
Marvel has had this problem more so than DC, mainly due to the fact that the former is now 18 movies deep into their universe while Warner Bros. and DC can’t seem to put out a superhero movie that isn’t Batman-oriented.
Yes, I’m aware Wonder Woman exists and it’s of importance, but it’s not a game changer in terms of plot or characters outside of Princess Diana. Thanks to that, the comic book movie discussion has been limited to almost exclusively talking about Marvel and its various properties.
Marvel has successfully built an interconnected cinematic universe, full of heroes that ooze charisma, which is a critical and commercial success. However, their heroes’ charisma isn’t challenged by worthy villains.
You could argue that Loki was the last great villain, but how much was it due to Tom Hiddleston’s performance? What are his motivations? Questions that don’t really have an answer and haven’t been answered since his first appearance in Thor.
By the end of May we’ll have seen Loki in his fifth Marvel film, not only lapping every other villain in appearances but also the majority of heroes that will be a part of Avengers: Infinity War. Yet all we can give him credit for is unifying the Avengers by (thankfully) killing Agent Phil Coulson.
One could argue that the entire purpose of these villains is to be cannon fodder; we don’t get compelling villains because we don’t need compelling villains. Thankfully, Black Panther director Ryan Coogler and company completely disregard this notion and create a comic book villain that not only stands on his own — with motivations that you understand and at times agree with — but also one that challenges the ideas of the hero and upends their world.
That villain is none other than N’Jadaka/Erik Killmonger, portrayed by Michael B. Jordan, a frequent collaborator with Coogler and the star of his first two films Fruitvale Station and Creed (both of which are phenomenal).
In a film where every actor is acting out of their minds, Jordan’s performance as Killmonger is the standout. He’s a villain that isn’t just the manifestation of the injustices in the United States, but also the failures of the Wakandan kingdom.
Killmonger is the ghost of the previous King’s failures, and he’s there to take the throne from Chadwick Boseman’s T’Challa — who is struggling with how to rule a nation in the wake of his father’s death — and end the isolationism that has allowed Wakanda to prosper without interference from imperialistic or colonial nations.
Killmonger’s rage towards the Kingdom of Wakanda stems from a pretty major plot point that I’m not going to spoil; this is something that you have to see with your own eyes. It’s anger that you, the audience, can understand. There’s logic behind it, especially once you hear him say, “Can you believe that? A kid from Oakland walking around and believing in fairy tales.”
In the America in which Killmonger was raised, that’s all Wakanda is: a fairy tale. His ultimate goal to use the technological success of Wakanda to help arm the oppressed and encourage them to fight back is admittedly misguided, a consequence of the imperialistic forces that he’s served under (he’s a ruthless American Black-Ops soldier).
That being said, Killmonger’s influence on the decisions T’Challa makes at the end of the film cannot be ignored. Without Killmonger, T’Challa and Wakanda wouldn’t have developed or grown in the way that the film permits them. That’s what makes a great villain: a character that actually affects their counterpart and creates an opportunity for growth in the protagonist.
Killmonger is the best villain in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and Black Panther is Marvel’s best movie since Iron Man. Not only is his musical theme the most memorable in recent history but his motivations are also clear, his anger is understandable and the performance by Michael B. Jordan is fantastic.
I can’t wait for everyone else to see this movie and for Michael B. Jordan, alongside the rest of the cast, to get the recognition they deserve.