There’s nothing like low/non-existent expectations to make you enjoy a movie all the more. I really didn’t know what to think about Black Panther going in. If anything I have been overly pessimistic about all of the super hero movies coming out this year. I’m actually glad this has just turned out to be my bad attitude in this case, as when I eventually got to go and see Black Panther, I really enjoyed it.
One of the things that stuck out about it the most to me though, amongst a whole swash of strong points, was the movie’s villain; Erik “Killmonger” Stevens, played by Michael B. Jordan. Anyone who thinks about the Marvel Cinematic Universe even slightly critically will know that the franchise’s movies have a villain problem. More often than not, they’re pretty weak as far as characters go. They might have cool design or seem physically imposing, but them actually being compelling as characters is rarely the case.
The strongest characterisation of villains for the MCU has been seen in their Netflix shows. Wilson Fisk, Killgrave, Cottonmouth and Elektra have all been fleshed out, and often humanised, to make them very compelling characters in their own right, and not just as antagonists to our titular heroes. Killmonger comes incredibly close to doing that for me and fails in only a few small ways.
It’s a testiment to how good Michael B. Jordan is in this movie though, as the supporting cast for Black Panther are all amazing. Danai Gurira is fantastic as Okoye; the head of an all female special forces unit. Her design is striking and Gurira makes sure the character come across as a complete badass the entire movie. Letitia Wright is great as Shuri, T’Challa’s younger sister and the “Q” to his “James Bond”. And Andy Serkis is an amazing piece of shit as Ulysses Klaue, who laughs and mugs his way through his entire performance.
That’s not even getting into Lupita Nyong’o, Winston Duke and Angela Bassett who all practically scene stealing every time they appeared on screen. I can’t remember seeing a movie in which the entire cast were all so strong throughout. Even Martin Freeman, who has made a career out of being that guy who blends into the wallpaper continued to do that very thing, very well.
It’s to the point that Chadwick Boseman fades back from the limelight of the movie, because everyone around him demand your attention, in most cases the titular character was the last person I screen I way paying attention to. I almost felt sorry for him every time he had to share a scene with Danai Gurira. And that’s not a complaint, it’s just a testament to how strong the supporting case is.
I’m not here to talk about kick-ass bald women though, I’m here to discuss a villain. Michael B. Jordan seems to effortlessly throw his hat into the ring for title of best MCU villain on pure charisma alone. Right from the first scene he appears in there is something to like about the character, something that draws you in. Even though we know he’s the villain from his actions, Jordan has this suave attitude that makes you want to root for him.
Black Panther does somthing we don’t often see the MCU movies doing though and give the villain a believable and relatable motive. Not only that, it humanises him, giving him strong emotional connections to other characters. It makes him seem like a human being and not just a caricature for the protagonist to overcome. Ronan the Accuser suddenly comes to mind and Malekith, do you even remember how that is? I had to google the name… They’re evil dicks with no real reason behind their actions aside from evil dickishness. At least, they don’t have reasons we can relate to.
Killmonger grew up a black kid in California. He has seen, first hand, the inequality and unjust directed not just as his own people, but people around the world during his time in the special forces. It’s pretty poinient with the state of the world right now, with big countries aiming to become more insular, while poorer or war torn nations seem to become worse off. If a nation like Wakanda did exist, they would sure as shit be questioned as to why they haven’t lifted a finger, with all their power and resources, why hasn’t this utopian society made steps to improve the world rather than ignore it.
Erik Stevens asks this question of Wakanda, not only that, he forces himself into events and forces change. It’s during this transition of power that we got a scene I was surprised to see. A flash back that gives more context to the opening of the movie. It gives Stevens the humanising moment of getting some final words with his father, who, like him, strove for Wakanda’s wealth and power to be used to better the world. His less extreme methods proved ineffective though and it left Stevens no choice but to take a more aggressive approach.
This scene gave me even more reason to like the character, if his raw charisma and performance wasn’t enough already. I’ve said all this, but I stated up top that the character didn’t slide into my favourite villain spot, and there’s a reason for this. It’s because the makers of Black Panther didn’t seem to want to portray Killmonger as anything but a raving lunatic when push comes to shove.
It occurs to me that this had made two great villains in a row now Marvel have given us. Killmonger and Michael Keaton’s Adiren Tombs. While a criminal and kind of a dick, the vulture was a man who cared deeply about his family, and was like a different person around them, on top of that he was a man who lived by a (admittedly grey) moral code, meaning we wouldn’t stoop to the low levels his henchmen would.
This is why I feel like Killmonger could have been better. While he talks a lot of sense and his motives are rooted in some very real and very important issues. When it came down to it, he was still a very clear villain. He has no hesitation in murdering his lover during the movie. He seems to pay little to no respect to any of the Wakandans he briefly becomes the king over, strangling old women who stand up for their culture an their traditions for example.
Despite all his likeability and humanisation, he still comes across as a pretty scummy individual all things considered. I guess I just wanted him to have a slightly bigger moral compass in the end. Or a part of the movie where some of the characters stopped for the briefest of moments and thought that this outsider might possibly make a good king for them. The only thing making him an antagonist at that point being was the fact that his actions would doom the world to chaos.
Ultimately it doesn’t ruin the movie for me. I really enjoyed Black Panther. Between the cast, the amazing setting, the visual design of the characters and Wakanda’s capital city, this was a hugely entertaining experience for me. Something that felt really refreshing, not just as an entry in the MCU, but as a movie in general. I’d really recommend it for all the reasons I’ve gushed about above. I only hope that my pessimism can be proven wrong for all of the other Marvel movies coming up this year.