There are many things that go into a great superhero movie villain. Charisma, likeability, motives, and plenty of other elements go into the pot that make up the villains we see in these movies.
At the of the day, however, I think the biggest factor for the greatness of a villain comes down to being relatable. But I didn’t realize how big of a deal that was until Black Panther’s Erik Killmonger came around.
Prior to Killmonger’s entrance into the superhero movie lexicon, just about every villain’s modus operandi was “I want to take over X.” Only there wasn’t a real motive or reason behind their actions. They just wanted to take over the world or create chaos due to nothing other than being a bad guy and that’s what bad guys do.
Killmonger walked in, said “Hey, auntie” and completely blew this mold right out the water.
“I want the throne.”
While Killmonger’s goal of taking over Wakanda follows the typical superhero villain script, his motives are unlike anything we’ve ever seen. He doesn’t just want to create chaos or rule for the sake of ruling. No, he wants to liberate black people all over the world.
This quest, we see at the beginning of the movie, is one that his father, N’Jobu, started back in the 90s, and it led to his death at the hands of King T’Chaka. N’Jobu was a Wakandan spy sent to Oakland in order to keep an eye on American society. While he was in the States, he bore witness to the calamity that the black community was facing and couldn’t just stand back and watch. As such, he helps Ulysses Klaue steal Vibranium from Wakanda with the hope that he can use it to develop technology that will give blacks a fighting chance against their oppressors. He never gets the chance to carry out this vision before he’s killed.
Enter Erik Killmonger.
While his father simply wanted to steal Vibranium, Killmonger wants to take the throne of Wakanda to personally help liberate his people. He’s also lived in America, seen exactly what black people go through, and rightfully angry at Wakanda for turning a blind eye to their hardships to continue living as isolationists. It’s at this point that Killmonger starts to make a lot of sense.
If we lived in a world where there was an African nation with the technology to rule the world, I would be upset too. Why didn’t they help us? Why did they just let colonizers not only kidnap Africans and take them to America as slaves, but also let them colonize a large part of their own continent? Yeah, they want to keep their technology safe and all. But surely they could have protected their fellow Africans and African Americans, right? (Nakia even says as much when saying to T’Challa that she’s sure Wakanda can keep itself protected while also helping the outside world.)
This idea of “why didn’t you help us?” harkens back to a common thought that many African Americans have about Africa. Why didn’t they come get us? Why did they just let us get bought and sold into slavery for a hundreds years?
The simple fact that I am able to draw this connection between real world sentiments and the character motivations of Killmonger is the exact reason he is one of the best (I actually think he is the best, but I’ll get into that more in a bit) on-screen superhero villain.
Walking away from this movie, it’s hard not to agree with some of the things that Killmonger is saying. Whereas most villains simply want to rule just to have power, Killmonger is essentially a freedom fighter. In a bit of irony, that I’m sure was not lost on Ryan Coogler and Joe Robert Cole, Killmonger is taking what was a main tenant of the Black Panther party — fighting back against their oppressors — and putting it into practice in an extremely radical form. It’s that radicalism where Killmonger’s actions go from “Hm, he’s got a point” to “Shit this guy is crazy.”
What Killmonger wants to do is essentially genocide. He wants to arm blacks in America and have them kill all the white people to rule the country, and eventually, the world. While I believe that a world ruled by black folk would be the most lit place in the universe, this isn’t the way to go about it. Killing women and children just because they don’t agree with a bunch of blacks running around armed with Vibranium-powered weapons is just wrong. Shit, I don’t agree with a bunch of blacks running around with Vibranium-powered weapons and I’m black. So while Killmonger has good intentions, he lets his aggression and anger of Wakanda turning a blind eye to the hardships of blacks outweigh rationality.
Even in his final moments, however, we get an even deeper glimpse into the psyche of his character. “Can you believe that? Another kid from Oakland running around believing in fairy tales,” Killmonger says to T’Challa when referencing how his father said he’d take him to Wakanda one day. He’s just another kid who grew up in the projects looking for a way out. Only, his way out was trying to become king of Wakanda in order to commit mass genocide on the oppressors of African Americans. In a way, he fulfilled those dreams and lived out those fairy tales. Sure, he died within days of reaching Wakanda, but he still got to see the sunsets that are the most beautiful in the world.
Now, I’d be remiss if I didn’t also talk about how good Michael B. Jordan is in this role. We’ve seen him do some hellified acting before in Fruitvale Station and Creed, but Jordan really outdid himself with this role. He steals just about every scene he’s in with an incredible amount of presence and poise. Not only that, but he delivers one of the heaviest lines of the whole movie with his (spoiler alert, but really, who hasn’t seen this yet!) dying breath. While the character of Killmonger and his intentions alone are a strong case for best villain, Jordan’s performance really drives this home.
This entire piece up to this point is perhaps the biggest reason why Killmonger such a great villain. Never before have we been able to have these kind of conversations when discussing the strength of a villain. For comparison’s sake, I want to compare Killmonger to what many, including myself prior to the release of Black Panther, considered the best on-screen comic book villain of all time: Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight.
There were a few things that make that character so good. Obviously the biggest thing was Heath Ledger’s performance. His charisma was something we hadn’t ever seen in a comic book movie up to that point. I mean come on, the guy won an Academy Award for this role. He quite literally died to make that role so good.
The other big factor behind the greatness of his Joker was that it stuck so close to the true nature of the character. While Jack Nicholson and Cesar Romero’s Joker heavily hit on the “joke” side of the character, Heath Ledger and Christopher Nolan tapped into the darker side of The Joker. He is about two things: chaos and trying to break Batman. This is demonstrated in four scenes. The first is when he is talking to Harvey Dent in the hospital and likens himself to a dog chasing after a car in that once he catches up with it, he doesn’t even know what to do with it. We again see his chaotic side when he gets a hold of all the mobster’s money and simply burns it all, showing that all he cares about is stirring the pot. We then see the “breaking Batman” side both when he is pushing and instigating Batman during the interrogation scene and during the final showdown when Batman throws him from a building only to grab him at the last second.
So yeah, he was a great villain. He has motives other than “I want to rule the world just cause” and Heath Ledger gave a hell of a performance. The thing that separates him from Killmonger, however, comes down to a single element: humanity.
While I can understand wanting your villains to just be villains with villainous (how many times is this man gonna say villain in a single sentence??)intent, there was just something incredibly refreshing about being conflicted about Killmonger’s intentions. Never before have I agreed with a villain so much. Granted, being an African American who has to be afraid for his life at times for no other reason than being African American surely plays into my empathy with Killmonger’s vision. But I’ve talked to some of my white friends who also walked out of this movie saying “Is it wrong that I kind of agree with Killmonger?”
That is the beauty of this character. Really, it’s the beauty of this entire movie. The fact that it can resonate not just with us black folk, but with all races just the same is a testament to just how transcendent Black Panther truly is.
At the forefront of that transcendence is Michael B. Jordan’s Erik Killmonger who is, in my book, the greatest on-screen villain of all time.
“Bury me in the ocean with my ancestors who jumped from ships, ’cause they knew death was better than bondage.”