Note: Do not read any further if you haven’t seen “Black Panther.” Spoilers below.
Erik Killmonger’s reign on the Wakandan throne was short-lived, but he is now the undisputed king of MCU antagonists. There’s Killmonger, and then there’s everybody else.
There was a time when debating the greatest Marvel Cinematic Universe villain of all time before “Avengers: Infinity War’s” theatrical debut would have seemed pointless.
Let’s refer to that time as B.K.: Before Killmonger.
Yes, “Infinity War” is only months away (May 4) and will feature the debut of Thanos, a mega-Marvel bad guy whose arrival is literally a cinematic event 10 years in the making. Yes, it will take the presence of every MCU movie hero alive in the ultimate team effort to even try to stop Thanos. And, yes, the MCU classic villain list was never that long to begin with. (Don’t mention Tom Hiddleston’s Loki, please. He’s a good guy at least half of the time.) For all the box-office glory Marvel Studios has collected, making interesting bad guys has never been its forte.
This ascension to the top is powered by actor Michael B. Jordan’s unforgettable performance as the classic “Black Panther” villain. Director/writer Ryan Coogler, co-writer Joe Robert Cole and producer Nate Moore create a new moment of childhood tragedy for Killmonger that differs from his comic origins and strips away his innocence for good.
Most MCU villains don’t get such a deep look into the soul, but that moment serves as the fuel to Killmonger’s fire. It’s his justification for the black rage that he unleashes on Wakanda after feelings of abandonment and betrayal overtake him.
Enhancing Killmonger’s unrivaled bad-guy status in the MCU is the top-secret performance of Sterling K. Brown, who plays the villain’s father, N’Jobu. At no time during “Black Panther’s” promotion was it revealed who Brown would be playing in “Black Panther.” That decision now looks to have been the right one, as his performance, while short and limited to flashbacks and dream sequences, had a big emotional impact on the movie.
What little humanity we see of Killmonger comes in those flashbacks when he’s reunited with the father he lost as a kid. While N’Jobu did betray his Wakandan homeland by helping provide information its enemies needed to help steal vibranium, in his mind, the actions were justified. After his time as an American spy, when he witnessed black suffering all across the world, N’Jobu wanted to arm those that were suffering from racial inequality with the technology that Wakanda had used to be an invincible, unconquerable land for centuries. It was a radicalized compassion that he passed down to his son — right up until the moment he died at the claws of his Black Panther brother, King T’Chaka.
Jordan takes over from there with a convincing turn as a man who feels that his people and his homeland betrayed not only him, but also all black people across the world. He’s charismatic in his mischievousness, somewhat channeling Heath Ledger’s Joker. The first time we see him in a London museum — while he’s executing the robbery of a secret vibranium Wakandan artifact — he is rubbing his feat in the face of his victims, as his succession in the mission proves that their racial profiling of him allowed his sneak attack; they weren’t paying attention elsewhere.
Once Killmonger arrives in Wakanda, we finally get the superhero/villain confrontation with his cousin, the Black Panther/T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman). Killmonger uses his royal blood to challenge for the throne. Killmonger’s dominance is on display the moment he arrives, and he takes down the Black Panther with surgical precision, providing one of the film’s most dramatic moment, when he’s crowned the new king of Wakanda.
The final transformation, when Killmonger becomes his own, gold-laced Black Panther, is a fitting moment that establishes he and Boseman’s Black Panther as equals — and also gives him one heck of a really cool suit. Killmonger eventually falls in the final battle for Wakanda’s soul, but he looks the part of an all-time villain while doing it.
The bad guy almost always dies at the end in superhero movies, but Jordan’s performance will live on as an all-time MCU moment that established Killmonger as the new standard in Marvel movie evil.
Thanos, you’re up next.