We have needed a modern, compelling villain and Marvel’s Black Panther delivers.
Here’s an unpopular opinion: The Joker is not an interesting villain. This is a common problem with comic book films.
The problem with the Joker is that he fails to be interesting on his own. In most Batman films, the director and writer assume the viewer already knows who the Joker is. Though most American viewers will know who he is, they don’t all know the Joker’s nuances and characterizations over the years. Writers and directors also fail to realize that the Joker is usually written as a reflection of Batman’s psyche and potential insanity. This means that, without Batman, the Joker loses much of his punch and falls by the wayside of a generic doomsday villain. The only time Joker lives without Batman is when he moves in with Harley Quinn and, in turn, becomes a reflection of her abuse and neglect.
This problem is not exclusive to the Joker or DC films in general.
Similar problems are found throughout the MCU. One of the biggest criticisms of MCU films includes the frankly boring or disappointing villains. There are some stand out villains that exist, such as Loki, at least in the original Thor film. However, starting with Phase 2 and extending into Phase 3, Marvel has certainly upped its ante. Ego, despite being a genocidal maniac, was affable and cool before showing his true colors. Zemo, despite being anti-climactic, managed to be relatable and actually succeeded in his plans. However, Marvel has reached a zenith with Eric “Killmonger” Stevens. Despite creating one of the best villains in comic book films with Vulture in Spider-Man: Homecoming, Marvel created a character equally as charismatic, relatable, and sympathetic.
However, what makes Killmonger the best MCU villain to date is how he impacts T’Challa.
Spoiler Alert. If you have not seen Black Panther and do not wish for it to be spoiled, stop reading here.
Despite losing to T’Challa at the end of the film, Killmonger has a positive effect on the king. T’Challa opens up the first of what is implied to be many community centers designed to support black communities. He also makes a notable attempt to support displaced and disenfranchised Africans around the world. This is not too far removed from Killmonger’s original plan.
As many know, Killmonger wanted to arm Africans around the world with powerful Wakandan technology in order to overthrow governments that marginalized them for centuries. This makes his goals modern and political. Despite comics having always been political, there seems to be very little room for politics in most comic films. Marvel comics have always used politics as a jumping off point for super heroics. Professor X and Magneto referenced Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, respectively. Captain America punching Hitler is a popular and well known comic book cover. Kamala Khan, also known as Ms. Marvel, often talked about big business destroying small communities and the negative effects of gentrification.
However, most MCU films may use politics, but the politics are only background information. Killmonger, however, references the War on Drugs and police brutality. He dismisses and critiques Wakanda’s isolationist policies. These very politics are the core of his philosophy and goals.
While watching Black Panther, the viewer almost wants Killmonger to win.
Killmonger kills Klaue, a terrorist, and brings him back to Wakanda. His goals to arm black men and women globally is a philosophy not very different from the Black Panther political party. Eric actively fights against colonialism and references the theft of resources many Africans face today in his first major bit of screentime.
More than anything, Killmonger shows that he is driven by anger, which separates him from T’Challa. His aggression and violence are the key factors of his status as the villain. When Killmonger burns the garden, he shows that he is still angry at the death of his father and shows no remorse for the culture of Wakanda. His willingness to kill his own girlfriend emphasizes his lack of empathy. And, finally, his threat to kill the children of Wakandan royalty notes that he’s not that different from T’Chaka who was willing to kill his own brother.
Good villains are irreplaceable while also able to be utilized in several places.
Killmonger shows a growing trend of interesting and notable villains in the MCU. Villains maintain importance not only to the heroes but to the viewers. Viewers desire a villain that they will love to hate. They crave a villain that is relatable and will make them think. If Killmonger removes himself from T’Challa, he’d still be a notable villain. He could fight Iron Man and emphasize how Iron Man fails to use riches to help the poor. He could contrast Captain America by explaining that Cap fails to use his image to truly impact the world. Killmonger works no matter who he’s up against. Loki is interesting, but no one cares about him if Thor isn’t around. The Mandarin can be replaced by any villain and be just as useless. However, Vulture, Zemo, and Ego cannot be replaced in their given films. Killmonger takes the best aspects of all of them, from a literary perspective, and shows what the MCU is truly capable of.