WARNING: The following article contains spoilers for Marvel Studios' Black Panther, in theaters now.
Right from the start, Black Panther is abundantly clear that Erik Killmonger has been working with Ulysses Klaue for quite some time. The two collaborate to obtain an old Vibranium weapon from the British Museum, and since it’s incredibly valuable, they can ask for any price. Once he has the Vibranium, Klaue sets up a meet with a buyer in South Korea.
After a brief car chase and Killmonger breaking Klaue out of a CIA base of operations, Erik shoots the other villain so that he has a token of goodwill. He takes Klaue’s body to Wakanda, specifically to W’Kabi, head of the Border Tribe. W’Kabi was already hurt by T’Challa, for not killing or imprisoning Klaue as he had killed W’Kabi’s father some years earlier. W’Kabi enables Erik by bringing him to T’Challa and the rest of the elders.
Oonce Killmonger arrives, he reignites the challenge for the throne, since he's T’Challa’s cousin, he is of Royal blood, after all. He actually manages to ‘defeat’ T’Challa by throwing him off a cliff, into a waterfall. Becoming King of Wakanda, Killmonger (whose real name is N’Jadaka) takes control of the country and all of its vast resources to enact his real plan.
Black Panther is very self-aware of its status in our world. The film uses its platform to spin a story filled with social commentary about racism, slavery, the class systems and poverty. Because Killmonger was left without a Father to raise him properly, he strayed from the right path. He entered into the American military and honed his skills in war. Earning hundreds of kills, he rose up through the ranks until he was drafted into a black-ops squad.
Further, his group was trained in destabilizing governments and turning entire countries against each other. He had literally been training his entire life for this moment. But in his military career and life growing up, Killmonger had seen the oppression and racism that people of African descent had endured across the world. His already volatile personality became warped, and he decided to claw his way back to Wakanda in order to turn the tide. His aim was to use all the Wakandan resources, technology and weapons to arm those who couldn’t arm themselves, so they could overthrow their governments and take their lives for themselves.
Going through with this plan would have given Erik the closure he feels necessary to get past all the problems that have occurred through his life. It gets revenge on T’Challa’s family for the death of N’Jobu, it pushes Killmonger to an entirely new level of power the likes of which the world isn’t really ready for, and it changes the society's class system, forever. Obviously, Black Panther manages to stop him, but not before having to travel through his own crucible of dealing with the death of his father, as well as coming to terms with old family secrets.
Erik Killmonger’s plan is one of two reasons that he’s being praised as one of the best Marvel villains to date. His motivations are so emotionally tied to his character, everything he does just feel natural for who he is. Using his black-ops skills to destabilize Wakanda and turn them all against each other is an excellent technique of divide and conquer. But it’s his awareness of the oppression in the rest of the world that really makes it hit home. He’s fighting for the common man, not just a selfish need to ascend to the throne. He genuinely believes that if he does ignite this rebellion – the Earth would be better for it.
Unfortunately, it’s not a plan founded on strong morals. Killmonger's methods are questionable, at best, and the way he murders people with ease means that he’s undoubtedly a villain. Michael B. Jordan has brought a truly compelling character to our screens that manages to engage the audience in a conversation about the world around them -- something that a comic book adaptation rarely manages to do so well.
In theaters now, director Ryan Coogler's Black Panther stars Chadwick Boseman as T’Challa, Michael B. Jordan as Erik Killmonger, Lupita Nyong’o as Nakia, Daniel Kaluuya as W’Kabi, Letitia Wright as Shuri, Danai Gurira as Okoye, Angela Bassett as Ramonda, Martin Freeman as Everett K. Ross, Andy Serkis as Ulysses Klaue, Winston Duke as M’Baku and Forest Whitaker as Zuri.