WARNING: The following article contains major spoilers for Marvel’s Black Panther, in theaters now.
Earning widespread critical acclaim, Marvel’s Black Panther is a bounty of wonderful things, with its awesome fight scenes, fantastical setting, compelling hero and equally fascinating villain. Out of the many incredible elements introduced into the Marvel Cinematic Universe through Black Panther, Erik Killmonger (played by Michael B. Jordan) is easily among the most impressive. It may not appear that way until you look past the character’s scheme to dominate the world with Wakanda’s advanced weaponry and, effectively, destroy it. The devil is in the details, and those make arguably the most complex antagonist in the MCU.
The MCU’s villains, along with those of most action films, tend to follow a formula. They’re constructed from a singular template character, which mimics and twist the hero’s flaws to facilitate character growth. In Iron Man, it was Iron Monger who represented corporate greed, something Tony Stark attempted to tear himself away from. In Captain America: The First Avenger, we saw the Red Skull, who served as the antithesis of the protagonist, an exhibition of Captain America’s power and dedication to ideology when in the wrong hands.
Then you have villains who lean closer to a moral gray area. Spider-Man: Homecoming‘s Vulture, for instance, was less of a dark reflection of the wall-crawler’s identity and more of a question posed to the audience: What makes an ordinary person good or evil? Michael Keaton’s Adrian Toomes was just was just another guy working to support his family. To him, the enemy was someone like Tony Stark, who seemed to pay no attention to the little people below. What makes an ordinary kid like Peter Parker that much better? In the end, we see that Peter adheres to his values, so he isn’t corrupted by the same greed and hate sent the Vulture down his shadowy path. It’s relatively grounded commentary on society.
The formula works, obviously. However, for the most part, these villains never become as great as they could be. Their stories and development typically lead to the same outcome: a huge battle between good and evil, out from which the hero emerges, galvanized by his ideals but relatively unchanged. The audience frequently empathizes with the antagonist on some level, but the character’s arc is generally simplistic, and in service to the hero’s story.
Now we have Killmonger, who exhibited some expected supervillain tropes: His plan was to take over Wakanda, and then use the nation’s technology to take over the world, which is pretty much the scheme of every supervillain ever. But his reasons for doing so are far deeper than those who came before him.
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