This is what makes Black Panther's Killmonger one of the best villains in the Marvel Cinematic Universe by Dirk Hooper
One of the frequent and often legitimate complaints about Marvel Studios movies are the lack of great villains. All too often the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) villains are one-dimensional bad-guys who are merely evil because that’s what the heroes need to have some conflict.
There is a bucket-load of cardboard, boring, uninspired villains who are instantly forgettable. Who was that nutsack in Thor: The Dark World? Oh sure, he looked evil, but… yawn. What about the bad dude in Doctor Strange? Evil Wizard #4? Who cares? And Ultron? Even James Spader couldn’t make him interesting, because he was written so poorly.
In Black Panther, Killmonger stands out because he’s got a lot more going on besides just being purely evil, and he’s a legitimate threat to the main characters.
There are some spoilers below, for those who are not current on their Marvel movies.
Let’s take a step back for a moment and define what makes a great villain in the first place. Not all of Marvel’s movie and television villains are poor, in fact some are pretty damn good.
Fanboys will tell you that a good villain has to be really powerful, but that’s beside the point.
What we’re looking for is someone who will challenge the main characters in some fundamental way and force them to change or evolve in the course of the story.
I contend that Helmut Zemo (who appeared in Captain America: Civil War) is one of the best MCU villains because he masterminded a way to break apart the core members of the Avengers by framing the Winter Soldier for the assassination of Black Panther’s father. And it worked, by the way.
Captain America and Iron Man ended up punching the stuffing out of each other at the end. That’s a good villain. He won without throwing one punch, and despite the fact that he had no superpowers.
Good villains could easily be seen as the hero in their own eyes.
Take Daredevil foil Wilson Fisk in the first season of that series. Fisk is in charge of a large criminal enterprise, but he sees his purpose as keeping order and creating opportunities for the city he loves by working beyond the law.
In fact, Fisk sees what Daredevil is doing, and what he’s doing, as exactly the same thing, and you know what?… there’s not much difference. That makes for a very interesting story where Daredevil has to struggle with his own purpose.
Wilson Fisk would actually make a great character in his own series. Something like Breaking Bad, where you see the fall of the man despite good intentions.
That’s what makes Fisk a great villain (well, that, and an amazing performance by Vincent D’Onofrio).
Good villains have some depth.
Hela in Thor: Ragnarok was banished and forgotten by Odin. She’s a legitimate heir to the throne and was imprisoned for a millennia, that’s a fair reason to be upset. Much like Loki, she absolutely oozed charisma. Even if she was elitist and evil, she was exceptionally entertaining.
The creators gave her moments to shine. Hela had more going on than just revenge and garden-variety menace. She had gravitas and an evolved character.
So, back to Killmonger.
Killmonger succeeds as a standout villain for several reasons.
He has a backstory that sets up his entire character arc. Killmonger was abandoned as a child in America by T’Challa’s father to hide a lie. Due to no actions of his own, he was dealt a poor hand. Once he learned the truth about his lineage and why he was left behind, he both had a legitimate reason to be mad and a genuine claim to the throne of Wakanda. (Also, if you want to explore some symbolism, a black man who was abandoned in America by his ancestors is an interesting place to start.)
It’s easy to sympathize with Killmonger. When he assumes the throne and drinks that potion to visit his ancestors we see him first as a boy, then as the man he is now. He is so bitter about what happened that he can’t even enjoy this special moment with his father, who sees what he’s become, and does not approve. This is a powerful moment, when we realize that achieving all he has up to this point, being validated as a Wakandan, winning the throne, or anything else, will never satisfy him. He is incapable of being happy. Watching this, it’s hard to not feel bad for him. That’s good writing.
He’s a legitimate threat, not just to the heroes of the film, or to Wakanda, but to the rest of the world. Killmonger defeats T’Challa in fair combat. He’s exceptionally clever and wants payback for everything that’s happened to him, and those he’s seen as wronged throughout history. And he manages to get many of the people of Wakanda behind him. His plan could actually create chaos across the globe, very easily.
The filmmakers gave him his own moments. Black Panther unfolds with Killmonger’s story running parallel to T’Challa’s story. We see Killmonger when he’s young, we see what he does to gain access to Wakanda, we see him defeat T’Challa. This is his story too. The scene that begins upside down and sees him assume the throne is wonderful. They literally showed that he was flipping the script in that moment. Killmonger was not just there to be defeated by T’Challa, he was an interesting nuanced character all his own.
He’s got a raison d’etre. You may not agree with his methods, or his heart, or his style, but he makes a lot of valid points throughout the film. Killmonger has the best line in the film at the end, “Bury me in the ocean with my ancestors that jumped the ship, because they knew death was better than bondage.” Wow. That’s powerful stuff, and just one example of his acerbic, but true wisdom.
Killmonger is directly involved in T’Challa’s own character arc. At the end of the movie, T’Challa steps away from his isolationist ideals and reaches out to the youth of Oakland, and to the United Nations. T’Challa’s approach is much more kind, positive, and giving, but it was the words and actions of Killmonger that guided that change.
Is Killmonger the best villain in the Marvel Cinematic Universe? I’ll leave that for you to decide, but he’s easily one of the best. Much of his success as a great villain comes directly from how he was written to be multi-faceted, charismatic, wise, and have a logical valid viewpoint.
Hopefully Marvel Studios will continue to improve their villains. Because, after all, heroes are only as good as the villains who challenge them.
All images are copyright Marvel Studios.