The Marvel Cinematic Universe has produced quite a few cultural sensations in the past eleven years. However, none seemed to catch the public imagination and dominate conversations quite like 2018’s Black Panther. It was more than a box office smash, which is par for the MCU. It was a sociopolitical moment that got everyone talking about the concept of pan-Africanism, the effects of the African diaspora, and the conflict between nationalism and responsibility.
This is due in large part to the movie’s villain, who symbolizes the film’s themes and continues to captivate audiences. It is not an overstatement to say that much of Black Panther’s success stems from Michael B. Jordan’s nigh-perfect performance as Erik Stevens, nicknamed “Killmonger.”
The Story of Home
Black Panther is not the origin story of its title character, the newly crowned King T’Challa. He was first introduced two years earlier in Captain America: Civil War, where he played a principal role and immediately won over audiences. This turned out for the better, as it allowed writer/director Ryan Coogler and co-writer Joe Robert Cole to flesh out his excellent supporting cast.
More importantly, Coogler and Cole and an astoundingly talented production team used the opportunity to bring Wakanda to life. The isolated nation presents itself as a third-world country but conceals a utopia so stunning that it brought Afrofuturism to the mainstream. Its resonance comes from showing how the continent’s cultures might have developed without Western colonialism, slavery, genocide, and exploitation.
A Kid from Oakland
Killmonger only knew that world through stories. Before he was Killmonger, before he was even Erik Stevens, he was N’Jadaka, “a kid from Oakland, running around believing in fairy tales.” His father, Prince N’Jobu, left his sheltered homeland only to find horrors that the rest of Wakanda chose to ignore. N’Jobu plotted to take action, and his brother, King T’Chaka, killed him to maintain Wakanda’s secrecy. This left N’Jadaka without a family and without his ancestral homeland, forced to live with the baggage universally experienced by black people — except Wakanda.
Black Panther revolves largely around the effects of this little boy’s loss and abandonment — in effect, it is his origin story, not T’Chaka’s son. He takes up changes his name and graduates from MIT. He joins the American military, where he learns how to ignite revolutions and destabilize nations. Most importantly, he takes up his father’s cause and embarks on a mission to force Wakanda out of isolation.
Justice Your King Couldn’t Deliver
This story may sound like a traditional hero’s journey from other stories set in fantastical environs. Yet, he is not truly heroic (just look at his nickname!), and the movie goes to great lengths to point out his flaws. His motivations may be righteous, but his methods are murderous. For him, success means absolute domination at the cost of millions of largely innocent lives, which simply does not match his stated anticolonialist views. This is not an overly simplistic “just as bad as them” argument: he would effectively become a colonizer himself.
And yet, despite his cruelty and his obviously villainous goals, some find it tough to even describe the character as a villain. Audiences identified with his motivations and sympathized with the tragedies that put him on the path to destruction and, ultimately, self-destruction. N’Jadaka was the son of a prince who saw the truth about the harm that Wakanda allowed to happen because of their isolationism and nationalism. In other circumstances, he could have been a great leader living a great life and creating a world that was better — not just for himself, but for everyone.
Killmonger was Right
Incredibly for any film, let alone a blockbuster film from a major company, Black Panther does not contradict the villain’s beliefs. T’Challa (and friends) must thwart Killmonger’s plans for global warfare, but he takes his cousin’s words to heart. The film makes this clear when he visits the ancestral plane and speaks with the spirit of his late father, T’Chaka. When the latter confesses to killing N’Jobu and leaving his own nephew behind, T’Challa breaks down and realizes the toll of their isolationist mindset. He vows to break with tradition and use Wakanda’s vast resources to provide aid. He will accomplish N’Jadaka’s goals without its hypocritical flaws.
That moment may be dramatic, but the audience can anticipate it because of an earlier scene in the ancestral plane. Erik Stevens takes his own trip there, where he reverts to the child he was when he lost his father. N’Jobu’s spirit is there to provide guidance, but not any of his other ancestors — lost in time, like so many descendants of enslaved people. “They will say you are lost,” he tells his son, who responds, “Maybe your home is the one that’s lost.” Both seem to be true, and T’Challa learns better.
As Black Panther became a genuine cultural phenomenon and spread throughout the world, the hashtag #KillmongerWasRight trended for a while. Many Twitter users even changed their screennames to this phrase and signal their support. These people were not calling for worldwide warfare. They learned — or already believed — what the hero was forced to learn by the actions of the ostensible villain. This is a testament to the power of the character, undoubtedly the greatest, best-written, most compelling villain of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Black Panther Merchandise
“Is this your king?” Whether you side with Black Panther or admire Killmonger (or both!), you can find merchandise of the movie’s characters at Your WDW Store. Our marvelous selection includes rare and exciting gifts for any fan of the film.