Black Panther: How Marvel’s Best Villain Elevates the Movie

We examine how Black Panther is unlike any other superhero movie, and why Michael B. Jordan's Killmonger is Marvel's best villain.

Michael B Jordan as Erik Killmonger

This article contains major Black Panther spoilers.

A film like Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther has been a long time coming. The movie will make box office and cinematic history as an A-list superhero blockbuster extravaganza that almost entirely stars people of color. However, its cinematic importance stretches beyond its dazzling international and multicultural cast, or the fact that it’s the first superhero movie nominated for Best Picture. Indeed, as Marvel Studios begins what is sure to be a yearlong self-congratulatory pat on the back with reunions and wistful reminisces, they have also provided something decidedly sharp for all of our futures: a film that in spite of its sci-fi/fantasy elements is subversively about something real—and something profoundly important to the current culture of the 21st century too.

To be sure, Marvel Studios has made plenty of highly entertaining movies in their decade of interconnected productions. A few of them have even been great. Yet there has been an emphasis on creating a seamless alternate reality that diverges from our own, and not just in terms of the introduction of superheroes and Norse gods. In the Marvel Cinematic Universe—the definitive franchise of this decade—there has been a constant, self-deprecating detachment from real world concerns, which are then usually replaced by simpler ones involving MacGuffin gems in a glove or cosmic cubes that have vaguely ill-defined “power.” Every attempt to comment on or reflect our real world in this fantasy is thus underplayed or underserved: Government officials who threaten to use surveillance on their citizens are not misguided patriots but cartoonish Nazi cults; and the fight against the actual Nazis in World War II turns into a Buck Rogers space opera complete with laser guns and a U.S. military that Marvel pretended wasn’t still segregated circa 1944.

Such frequent demurring from uncomfortable truths has of course allowed Marvel to build a wildly imaginative and successful universe, yet it has remained removed from anything resembling the world it entertains. But that is not the case with Black Panther, a movie definitely about something, not least of which is being the first superhero movie that treats blackness as more than an afterthought. Director Ryan Coogler broke into movie culture by providing one of the most searing and thoughtful films about race in modern America with 2013’s Fruitvale Station. And in Black Panther, he reaches toward something more universal, yet intimately specific.

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In a revelatory interview Wired did with the 31-year-old filmmaker, Coogler considered how unique and inspiring a film like Black Panther will be for the next generation while comparing it to how starved he was for reprsentation from his childhood idols during his youth in the 1990s. He also gave some fascinating insight into the thematic heart of his film, which after obliterating a lack of representation then tackles something even more nuanced.

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“I wanted to explore what it means to be African,” Coogler told Wired. “What it means to be African American and what that means in the larger context of colonialization. These are things I have been grappling with my whole life, and this was an opportunity to explore them through a film that could be different to anything else I’ve done.”

In this vein, the film’s first scene does not open in Wakanda, a fictional African nation unmarred by colonialism and with the most advanced technology on Earth, nor does it begin with the regal image of a proud African king surveying his futurist realm. Rather the picture starts in a far more poignant and significant landscape for the largely American culture that will consume Black Panther: It’s a beleaguered basketball court in 1990s Oakland, upon which a soon to be orphaned child plays a game of hoops.

Upstairs in a tenement building, his father (Sterling K. Brown) has embraced American culture and what he sees as its failings, which is indicated by his hiding of guns in a closet as he opens the door for a visiting guest… his brother, the King of Wakanda. It is a striking scene that eventually is revealed to be the origin of Black Panther’s greatest asset, Michael B. Jordan as Erik Killmonger. For here are the two influences that define the film’s dastardly named “Kill-Monger” and his purported villainy: his Americanized father and his distant history from another land that is about to be ripped away him once the King of Wakanda kills his brother, leaving the boy rootless and forgotten on the streets of an American inner city. It will not be until the boy grows up into Michael B. Jordan that the full implications of this scene are crystallized, but it represents the heart of the film, and what makes Jordan’s Killmonger one of the all-time great villains, in Marvel Studios or otherwise.

For it is the tragedy of Erik Killmonger from which the film derives its intelligence and heartbreakingly astute insight. Here is a villain who is not seeking a MacGuffin or some form of cosmic power to rule and destroy. Rather he achieves power early in the film when he becomes the de facto King of Wakanda for a day after defeating the eponymous Black Panther, aka young King T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman). But it is a means to a justified end: he wishes to combine his African heritage with his African American upbringing—and to use Wakanda’s untouched and un-colonized culture to drive a revolution for the “oppressed,” and over-policed and over-incarcerated, people of color throughout the world.

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This is a subversive and challenging concept to find in any blockbuster film, much less a Marvel superhero flick, yet it is given depth and poignancy by the director and his Fruitvale Station star, both of whom refuse to look to comic books for a villain’s motivations. Instead everything about Killmonger’s machinations are grounded in a stingingly thoughtful perspective. From becoming King of Wakanda to almost unleashing futurist technology to “war dogs” on the streets of New York, London, and every other Western metropolis that has left people as marginalized as the abandoned child on a basketball court in Oakland, Killmonger’s goals and identity are built on a foundation of truth.

Consider that Killmonger’s first scene as an adult is in an unnamed British museum. He smilingly lets a white curator incorrectly explain to him the history of artifacts “discovered” and recovered from Africa. Yet the emphasis on repeatedly naming this location as “a British museum” is perversely satirical, considering it is clearly meant to be The British Museum. That bastion of world history is a treasure trove of rich culture that had been appropriated over centuries of imperial colonialization. English comedian John Oliver oft refers to the institution as “an active crime scene.” For instance, officials from Egypt still periodically demand the British Museum return the Rosetta Stone to its native country, where it was removed by the British in 1802 following the defeat of Napoleonic French forces (who had already laid claim to the artifact during their conquest).

In Black Panther, such arguable cultural theft is re-appropriated when upon taking a mislabeled Wakandan artifact in the museum’s African collection, Killmonger also claims a tribal mask as his own without knowing a thing about it. He is just “feeling it” and remakes this history to fit his own new image.

That juxtaposition between Western culture and African culture, and Killmonger’s inability to reconcile them, is what drives the entire conflict of the film. For in Wakanda, the local population has remained untouched by Western influences and is both decidedly African in its heritage and futurist in its technology. So upon becoming king, someone like T’Challa can enjoy a ritual that allows him to meet his ancestors on the plains of a glowing savanna landscape. Yet when Killmonger consumes the same hallucinogenic flower, his vision of home is his father in a tiny, decrepit apartment complex in Oakland, with the psychedelic colorings of an African paradise stretching past the windows—out of focus and out of reach.

He cannot find peace or “home” in either his American homeland or in his Wakandan heritage. The subtle complexity of dissonant lineage has been the lifelong focus of scholars with greater insight than my own. Emily Raboteau, for instance, wrote a beautifully trenchant creative nonfiction about her odyssey of identity-dislocation in Searching for Zion. As a woman of multiple heritages, Raboteau examines the desire to find a Promised Land amongst black Americans in the same way that people of the Jewish faith from across the world have rediscovered a home in the land of milk and honey. Raboteau traces personal and cultural lineages through the American South, Jamaica, Ethiopia, and Ghana. Yet like many Americans of African descent, it is hard to find the location of what Alex Haley famously defined as Roots in 1976. For the legacy of slavery has robbed millions of ever knowing their full heritage.

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Such dichotomy is the line that propels Black Panther and its villain. Even in Killmonger’s last breath, as he looks upon a Wakandan sunset that should be his birthright from his father, he yearns to understand the heritage of ancestors from his mother’s American side—including those who chose to throw themselves from slave ships, and into a watery oblivion, rather than face a lifetime in chains. “Better to die free than live in bondage.”

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These elements inform a wonderfully entertaining action movie in which there are indestructible cars, remote controlled airplanes, and bulletproof suits that can be hidden inside of a necklace. But the demons and anxieties that torment the film’s villain and ultimately haunt its hero are what make Black Panther a true film for the ages. A populist entertainment that puts into shiny, family friendly packaging concepts and identity crises that are often overlooked by mainstream media and pop culture. And the movie does so while still celebrating diversity and suggesting such anger and fury couched in centuries of justified resentment is ultimately only destructive and futile in building a better, more inclusive future—one in which T’Challa can finally let down Wakanda’s walls and attempt to bridge the African and American, Wakanda and Oakland.

This article was originally published on Feb. 16, 2018.

David Crow is the Film Section Editor at Den of Geek. He’s also a member of the Online Film Critics Society. Read more of his work here. You can follow him on Twitter @DCrowsNest.