There’s nothing quite like a good movie villain. If we’re talking about the Marvel Cinematic Universe, maybe you read this statement another way: there’s nothing quite like a good movie villain, anywhere. With the exception of Loki and a few other superbaddies, the MCU’s well-documented track record for weak villains has been the franchise’s persistent shortcoming. In much the same way as the villains of the Bond franchise became less and less interesting with each progressive installment, by this point you basically know what you’re getting in the Antagonist Department. At worst, the MCU gives us a paper-thin doppelgänger for the hero, a bland apocalypse-seeker with vague motivation, or whatever the heck Christopher Eccleston was supposed to be in Thor: The Dark World. At best, the MCU just gives us Loki for like the fifth time.
And then Black Panther came along.
That statement, too, extends beyond Marvel Studios. Two days after the film’s release, the cultural impact of Black Panther can already be measured on the Richter scale. On this barometer the film deserves the hype, marking an important watershed moment for the global blockbuster landscape. Ryan Coogler, the immensely talented filmmaker behind Fruitvale Station and Creed, assembled an incredible cast and forged an exciting adventure film that delivers important social commentary within the bounds of a superhero narrative. The movie is simultaneously more fantastical and more relevant than anything else in today’s superhero-laden market, conjuring a fairytale that miraculously also conveys truth about the world outside the screen. As We Minored In Film‘s Kelly Konda notes in his awesome breakdown of Black Panther‘s mythmaking, “This is what a traditional superhero movie is supposed to do, dammit.”
A large part of this is due to Killmonger, the villain, who rises above even that most commonly lazy compliment of being “relatable” to a station rarely seen in superhero cinema. In the most superficial sense, it helps that Michael B. Jordan plays Killmonger like it’s his last role. In nine out of ten MCU films that don’t include Tom Hiddleston’s Loki — like Avengers: Age of Ultron, Guardians of the Galaxy, Ant-Man, the Iron Man sequels, Doctor Strange, etc. — the bad guys are often inhabited by great actors turning in boring performances. Iron Man 3 is particularly infuriating not for the “Mandarin twist” but because the antagonist is Aldrich Killian, played by Guy Pearce, a fantastic performer who’s as bland as he’s ever been opposite the endless charisma of Robert Downey Jr. It doesn’t ever seem like he’s in the movie. Maybe he was on the set filming something else, being Guy Pearce, and director Shane Black simply zoomed in on him from across the backlot and then put his face on the posters. He showed up, sure, but the actor playing Killian always feels like he showed up just to be Guy Pearce.
But Michael B. Jordan showed up for Killmonger. His is a feral, angry performance that conveys both the character’s pain and the threat he poses to anyone in a ten-mile radius. Jordan came to chew scenery, and Black Panther is absolutely electric whenever he’s onscreen.
Still, a great performance does not a great villain make. Take Cate Blanchett’s Hela from Thor: Ragnarok: a majestic performance, full of the Shakespearian bombast that jives perfectly with the Thor films, and yet ultimately hollow in terms of motivation and the ability to elicit any of our empathy. The script simply fails to meet the heights Blanchett brings to the character.
Let’s back up for a moment and take a few pointers from Lessons from the Screenplay on this one. On the page — performances aside — what makes for the ultimate antagonist? Four key things:
- The villain is exceptionally good at attacking the hero’s greatest weakness
- The villain gives the hero tough choices
- The villain competes for the same goal as the hero
- The hero grows wiser because of the villain
Inasmuch as the mantle of Greatest MCU Villain boils down to Loki or Killmonger — which, let’s be honest, it basically does — we can use these points as our weaning criteria. Both succeed in attacking their counterpart’s greatest weakness, which in Thor’s case is family and tradition and in Black Panther’s case is…family and tradition. Both dole out hard choices, Loki forcing Thor to kill his enemy or save his brother and Killmonger forcing T’Challa to side the with the family he knows or the family he’s just met.
The third point would ostensibly involve the throne in both cases. Loki certainly seeks Thor’s seat at the top of Asgard, doing so for pure power but also out of jealousy that his more well-off brother would get to sit there in the first place. The Killmonger/T’Challa relationship is certainly similar, but Killmonger seeks to do more with that throne than rule with an iron fist. He’s seeking to fling Wakandan technology to all corners of the globe, equipping long-disenfranchised minorities like him with the power to fight back. One imagines Killmonger wouldn’t stick around to rule Wakanda after accomplishing this. But his larger goal still ties to the goals of the hero, with T’Challa searching for his chief purpose as king of a country cut off from the outside world.
Which leaves the final, arguably most important characteristic of a well-crafted antagonist: the hero must grow wiser through the villain. Great as Loki is in Thor, his golden-haired brother can’t exactly be said to have changed through Loki’s actions or viewpoints. At the end of the film Loki falls into the abyss outside Asgard, presumably to his death, and Thor essentially returns to musing about his Earthbound love Jane Foster. The film ends with the intimation that these two star-crossed lovers are still searching for each other, universes away. How touching.
Compare that with Black Panther‘s ending, which inescapably revolves around this growth in the hero by way of the actions of the villain. T’Challa’s calling as King of Wakanda is to bring Wakanda to the world, and he only achieves this clarity through Killmonger’s perspective. He finds a better way to essentially achieve that same goal of bringing better resources to those without, shown explicitly in the final scene of the film and in the first post-credits sequence.
There’s nothing so explicit in Thor about the ways in which Loki provided such growth to the God of Thunder. Granted, there are other points that could comprise a great villain, like Loki’s ability to steer everything from the shadows. Also granted is that not every great villain needs to prompt growth in the hero — take Othello‘s Iago, a Shakespearian roadmap for Loki if there ever was one, who operates similarly and causes Othello only anguish and death. And also granted is that Loki has a subsequent three or four appearances to stir this growth in Thor, which he eventually sort of does. Granted, granted, granted.
Killmonger didn’t need to appear three or four more times. Like Loki, he’s more than just a “relatable” villain: he’s the hero of his own version of Black Panther, a version in which he’s not a villain at all. He’s a kid from Oakland who believes in fantasy, and maybe if he had support and resources he would have went down a different path. If he had someone to look up to, someone who looked like him, then maybe his sense of abandonment wouldn’t have been so severe. It’s this sense of abandonment that he projects onto others, and that’s not to say that he’s necessarily wrong in doing so. There’s every chance that his plan would have succeeded in rewriting five hundred years of history, in finding others who’ve been similarly abandoned. And so it’s this Killmonger who projects supreme confidence, who sheds only a single tear for the father he should have had, who swaggers through Black Panther and through the MCU. Underneath that swagger we can still see the kid from Oakland, the one who might have been an ultimate ally to T’Challa and to Wakanda, if only we lived in a different kind of world.