Black Panther's Killmonger is the Perfect Antagonist
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Michael B. Jordan’s Erik Killmonger is the perfect antagonist because his character arc in Black Panther (2018) is political, personal, and poignant all at once.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe doesn’t have a great history of memorable villains — Loki’s the only one anyone really remembers, and that’s only because he’s appeared in four films now. Generic bad guys whose goal of ruling the universe or simply causing chaos just won’t cut it any more after Jordan’s phenomenally nuanced performance.
Let’s take a look at why it’s so affecting.
The entire afrofuturistic concept of Wakanda is based on the fact that the country was never colonised, brutalised, and enslaved by the Western world. This very fact allows a flourishing and advanced African nation with powerful and to some degree carefree African characters to be shown on screen in a way that’s never been seen before. The flip side of this is, of course, the realities faced by African-Americans, and black people all over the world, whose ancestors were enslaved. Killmonger represents the rage that all descendants of colonised peoples feel against their oppressors, and while its incomprehensible to the Wakandans, it’s something that resonates very powerfully with audiences.
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Tragic backstories for antagonists are pretty par for the course, but Killmonger’s has a certain edge. His blood relationship to T’challa (Chadwick Boseman) takes the political to a whole new level. The two men share a culture, but not a history. It shows how circumstance and opportunity and environment can shape two individuals with the same background into totally different people. It shows that the ability to be calm and unaffected by injustice is a privilege belonging to those who have no personal experience of that injustice. It shows that even when leaders act in the name of justice, there is always collateral damage, and there are two sides to every story.
The tragedy of Erik’s character is so moving, and though it is imperative that he is stopped, it is his actions that are condemned, not his motivations. Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o)’s ambition to share Wakandan technology with the world is not so different from Erik’s — just that she wants to give people a way to help themselves peacefully, and Killmonger would incite a violent revolution. The motivation is the same — neither of them can ignore the suffering of black people around the globe. Nakia alone couldn’t persuade T’challa to listen at the beginning of the film, but after seeing Erik’s conviction and motivations, only then does T’challa realise that keeping Wakandan tech hidden when they have the power to affect so much change is wrong. Giving Erik that power to sway T’challa, and giving him agency in his own death, is the perfect way of communicating to the audience that it was his methods, not his rage itself, that was wrong.
Jordan lent such complexity to the role, emanating power and anger just as well as vulnerability and grief. The most impressively written aspect of Black Panther is that though all the characters are pitted against each other at various points in the film, each one’s motivations are always clear and believable. Each one fights for a valid cause, and there is no simple right answer.
It’s a welcome progression from 2-dimensional, black-and-white (hah) villains that have bored us for 10 years of the MCU up until now. Catch me sleeping through Avengers: Infinity War (2019) - Thanos could never compare.
Black Panther is in cinemas now.