Opinion | What makes Erik Killmonger such a great villain?
Black Panther, the latest instalment in the MCU, is still riding high at the box office both here in the UK and across the pond in the US. It’s been a couple of weeks since I actually saw the film and met Erik Killmonger, but I’ve not really been able to stop thinking about it.
I think that the film is an absolute triumph and shows that Marvel is actually brave enough to step outside their comfort zone and let a director with a really strong, singular vision do their own thing. The film is notably different for quite a lot of reasons, and I could easily write ten articles about different aspects of the movie. The thing that has really been stuck in my mind for the last couple of weeks though is Killmonger
If you’re reading this I want you to take a moment to think about all of the Marvel movies that you’ve seen so far. Okay, are they in your head? Right, now which of those films has a really memorable villain? For example, without looking could you tell me the name of the villain in Ant-Man? I think across the whole MCU there are probably only a handful of memorable villains. I really liked the Red Skull and he’s certainly an iconic villain, but he was massively underused in the Captain America movies. The only villain that has really had any staying power in the MCU is Loki, and that’s largely down to Tom Hiddleston’s charismatic performance. That said, given the recent events in Thor: Ragnarok it’s perhaps a stretch to even call Loki a villain anymore, but we’ll see what Infinity War brings.
Okay, let’s try again.
Think of every villain in the MCU. How many of their plans do you think you could name? What was the motivation for what they wanted to do? Most importantly, how many of those plans resulted in a blue light shining into the sky, threatening to destroy life as we know it? I think it’s fair to say that Marvel has, for the most part, stuck to a blueprint for their movies, and it usually involves a bad guy with some world-ending MacGuffin that our heroes need to stop/destroy/blow up.
I think I should say at this point, that I love the MCU. I’ve seen every movie, and I’m pretty sure that I own all of them on Bluray and have watched them all multiple times — yes even Age of Ultron, which I think is slightly underrated. But I don’t think it’s an unreasonable criticism to say that the villains have (typically) been the weakest part of the films, especially with such a rich catalog of villains to choose from.
Enter Erik Killmonger. It’s entirely possible that I’m a little bit biased because I’m such a huge fan of Michael B. Jordan, thanks to his time on Friday Night Lights. I’m a huge fan of anyone that’s been in Friday Night Lights but Jordan’s character, Vince, is a real standout in a series full of standouts. That said, I think that in Killmonger, Marvel have created their most relatable and engaging villain to date in the MCU. Yes, even more so than Loki.
I think the most interesting thing about the character is that if you remove him from the film you could easily transplant him into another movie and he would be the hero of the story. The things that he is fighting for are, on the face of it, noble ambitions. He wants to free oppressed people and give them the power to control their own destiny. That’s not such a terrible thing, right?
The villains that we normally see in the MCU are pretty lightweight. We never really get to see exactly why they are the way they are. Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges) in the original Iron Man movie wants to make more money, and he doesn’t want Tony Stark (Robert Downey Junior) to make changes to the company that will impact his bottom line. Naturally, he turns evil, dons a giant metal suit,and tries to kill Tony Stark. In Thor: The Dark World, Christopher Eccleston’s character Malekith wants to get his hands on that red stuff that got inside Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) so that he can destroy the world for… reasons. What Black Panther gives us with Killmonger is a solid and understandable backstory. The flashbacks to his early years and witnessing his father’s death gives a really strong emotional tie to the character, and help us to see why he’s doing what he’s doing.
Just as T’Challa and Killmonger both end up wearing pretty much the same suit, both of them really have the same goals, but the way that they want to achieve them is radically different. The MCU has given us plenty of examples of villains that are pretty much the same as the heroes, with the same powers, only evil (Ant-Man, Captain America, Iron Man (1 and 2), The Incredible Hulk, Doctor Strange), but none of them have really tried to show us two characters who are so similar and yet so very different as T’Challa and Erik Killmonger are.
Michael B. Jordan’s performance is also a huge factor in why I think Killmonger works so well. Physically, he’s absolutely perfect for the role and is superb in all of the action scenes. There’s a really menacing physicality to his performance that oozes power and aggression. He’s also an incredibly charismatic actor who makes the character so engaging. The scene in London at the museum had a really playful, and dare I say, Joker-esque quality to it.
I’m hoping that we haven’t seen the last of Erik Killmonger in the MCU, despite him dying at the end of the film. That doesn’t really mean anything for the MCU (I’ve lost count of the number of times that Loki has seemingly died). That said, his death was absolutely fabulous and really packed an emotional punch. It was during that scene when I realized that I had actually been rooting for Killmonger throughout the whole film without realizing it. Even if he is never going to come back, I think that Ryan Coogler and Michael B. Jordan have given us a great villain for the MCU and they have hopefully given future Marvel directors something to think about when crafting their antagonists.