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Warning: This story contains plot spoilers for Black Panther.
Michael B. Jordan’s performance as Erik “Killmonger” Stevens has delivered the best villain to come out of pretty much any comic book movie to date. He’s smart and charismatic and angry—with good reason. His desire to challenge the status quo around him sparked an immediate response from movie fans who are all too used to bland CGI monsters.
A complicated villain is the best kind of villain, especially when far too many of them are supernatural behemoths with close to no backstory. Not only did Killmonger enter Black Panther with an understandable motivation—avenging and continuing the mission of his murdered and forsaken father—but it’s clear he’s a victim as well, making him sympathetic from the start. There are times when it’s genuinely difficult to root against him in the film, because part of you wants to find out if he can make his dream, a world in which there are no oppressed black people, a reality.
As T’Challa said himself, Killmonger was the monster that Wakanda created by upending his world and abandoning him to survive alone. He was able to piece his life back together on his own, getting educational and military training that made him into a major force to be reckoned with. He used those skills to stage a one-day takeover of a country that had never been conquered previously.
Consider that. Through centuries of existence, Wakanda has never been colonized, dismantled, or enslaved. Yet, in less than 24 hours, one man was able to come in, alone, and overthrow the entire government, become the country’s king and protector, and almost send it into a global conflict. And that’s not even the most impressive thing about the impact he made.
Ultimately, Killmonger wanted Wakanda to change—and he inspired it to do just that. By demanding the secretive nation to step out of the shadows and intervene in world affairs, Killmonger may have left a bigger impact on the world than most of his competition among the MCU’s top villains.
A lot of the heroes we’ve seen thus far are given adversaries that are mostly physical obstacles that they have to literally get around, over, or through, by the end of the film. They don’t challenge their rivals in any way other than through brute strength or strategic thinking. Killmonger did much more. Sure, he challenged T’Challa’s strength and intellect on multiple occasions, but he also challenged T’Challa’s outlook on the entire world around him and his place in it.
Coming into his new role as king, T’Challa supported Wakanda’s tradition of isolationism at the cost of neglecting the issues of the greater world. Killmonger, like his father, took an opposite stance, backing the idea that Wakanda should use its abundant resources and advanced technology to help oppressed peoples across the globe. It’s a noble goal—except that Killmonger wanted to accomplish it through brute force.
Let’s make something clear: Killmonger is a villain. His backstory and motivation make him highly sympathetic at times. But he’s still a villain. Even if you chalk up most of his kills to his duties as a soldier and to necessary parts of his mission, his methods were still highly problematic. The fact that there’s a vocal population extolling the notion that he somehow wasn’t the bad guy further proves how exceptional he was at it.
It’s perfectly fine for fans to sport a “Killmonger was right” T-shirt, as long as we take the time to acknowledge that there’s an invisible asterisk at the end that statement that stands for “about some key concepts concerning fighting oppression but with flawed plans for execution.”
No realistic villain thinks they’re in the wrong. They justify their actions to achieve what they feel is necessary. If they can also convince other people to think the same along the way, well, that’s something special.
Ultimately, the path Killmonger chose to walk resulted in his death when other options were on the table. (At least he went out on a killer line.) In a perfect world, his character would’ve stuck around for a while longer to see the impact he had on T’Challa, Wakanda, and the rest of the Marvel universe.
Keith Reid-Cleveland is a Chicago-based writer who has been covering geek culture, streaming entertainment, and politics for more than five years. His work has appeared in Uproxx, the Undefeated, Black Nerd Problems, and the Black Youth Project.