Black Panther is here, setting our hearts aflame. For many, it might now be their favorite Marvel Cinematic Universe feature. (It is definitely in my top five.) But, no matter how you may feel about the movie, there is one thing we can all agree on. Erik “Killmonger” Stevens, the primary antagonist, is the best villain. He is an amazing foe, one that is great both in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and in the entire medium.
Killmonger is an elite soldier. He is calculating, intelligent, smart and strong. He knows how to manipulate people to get what he wants. He is ruthless and has built a reputation for himself as both a hero and a villain. All of these make him an interesting character, one people would love to hate. But the more subtle elements are what make him even more amazing.
Consider Killmonger’s background. He was raised in America. Even though he was of royal descent and from one of the most advanced countries in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, he was never able to enjoy any of it. He was facing injustice and hardship every day. Even more so once his father was killed. And not only was his father killed and he left to deal with the body and sorrow, he had to know that it was his own uncle who murdered him. This is someone you want to sympathize with, making the villain all the more complex and interesting as a person.
He is a good foil for T’Challa, who frankly has always had everything given to him. Think of their positions for most of Black Panther. T’Challa is royalty, the son of the king, and has always had the unquestioned support of his people. He has always lived in Wakanda and had access to its amazing technology and culture. He has a family who loves him. A lot of things are given to him, and he easily takes the throne with only one tribe’s member initially opposing him. Yet, for all his good, he is focused on helping people only in his immediate vicinity and realm for the initial part of the movie. Killmonger is poor and alone. He does not have family to support him. He is in a country that does not respect him. He has had to work for everything, killing possibly hundreds, to not even reach a top position of power. But, even though he does not have much, he is struggling to get more and use it to help those he considers his people worldwide.
Killmonger is trying rule Wakanda and take control for what he considers the greater good. He sees how people of African descent are treated by people in the rest of the world. He wants to gain control of the country and its vibranium, so they could supply oppressed people around the world. He wanted to rectify a wrong and bring justice. Compare it to Brigadier General Frank Hummel’s mission in The Rock. He takes over Alcatraz and takes hostages with his rogue force to try and convince the U.S. government to finally acknowledge the honorable service of soldiers who died on secret missions and help their families. In both cases, we have an instance of a cause that is not necessarily wrong, and may even be noble in the right light, but is being poorly executed.
Which comes together to highlight why Killmonger is such an amazing character. There are certain films, games, and shows out there that, when edited differently, could make the villain into the hero. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is one of those shows, as Gul Dukat is the sort of antagonist that, with a few strategic cuts, could look like the hero and make Sisko seem like the villain. If Black Panther were edited in the right way, it would be entirely possible to make Killmonger out to be a tragic hero. Those subtleties are what make the character, and even the movie, so incredible.
Killmonger is a villain that makes us think. In the moment, when we are caught up in Black Panther’s action, we can immediately hate on him and think about how horrible his actions are and good T’Challa is when he defeats him. But, he really shines once the movie is over and we have a chance to digest what we have learned and seen. He has a tragic backstory that made him the man he is. He is a true foil to T’Challa, one who could be a hero in the right light. Most importantly, he is someone who could just as easily been the hero as he could have been the villain. All of these things make Killmonger amazing.