Michael B. Jordan's Killmonger is the best comic movie villain since Heath Ledger's Joker.
- If you haven't seen Black Panther, tread carefully. Spoilers ahead -
Villains are the most important part of any movie. Think about it. A hero is only as good as his enemy. The struggle, the conflict, that an enemy brings to the story is necessary for the scripts to progress. If one were to remove every villain from the superhero genre, the heroes would have nothing to do. On the other hand, if you were to remove all of the heroes from the superhero genre, leaving only the bad guys, it would make for a pretty entertaining film.
While there are several unique, powerful, and clever warriors in Wakanda, let’s keep it real. This was Michael B. Jordan’s movie. Erik Killmonger, the main villain of the story, is the most complex bad guy Marvel has ever put on screen. Jordan dives into that arrogant tough-guy persona he embodied so well in Creed, but this time he adds a sadistic twist and an abundance of black extremism. Although you watch his character senselessly kill innocent people throughout the whole movie with a coldly calculated calmness, you can’t help but yearn for Killmonger’s redemption by the conclusion of the film.
Now, there are several elements of Black Panther that are absolutely monumental for Black culture. Besides the fact that it debuted during Black History Month, Black Panther is the first blockbuster movie in its price range (about $200 million dollars) to explore the discussions of the racial divide, European colonization, and Black camaraderie with a cast that was predominantly Black on such a large stage. Hearing the unconquered nation of Wakanda’s residents refer to Americans as “colonizers” gave me a victorious feeling in my gut. Watching Black women displayed as the most important military and scientific forces in the world filled me with pride. The entire movie is a movement and a moment at the same time. Still, nothing jerked my emotions the way Killmonger did.
As a young Black male, I see so much of myself in Killmonger, as I am sure so many Black men do. His sadistic murdering tendencies aside, Killmonger’s ideals are not too misaligned with the prevalent thoughts in young black men’s minds. In his first scene, Killmonger tells a museum employee that he will be taking some ancient artifacts off their hands. When the woman, a Caucasian lady, responds that they aren’t for sale, Killmonger becomes offended. He angrily tells the woman that her ancestors never paid for it, and that he shouldn’t have to either. It was a triumphant opening dialogue for the villain, and it resonated with the audience so much that the next few lines in the movie were drowned out by loud cheers of praise. It’s that rage that so many Black people feel inside that Killmonger articulates so well. Not a burning fiery rage, but that deep painful rage that resonates in your soul when pictures of lynchings, or stories like Trayvon Martin’s, appear in the media. Or when Black children are shot by police, and when tiki-wielding Caucasian men march down the street. That feeling of anger mixed with pain and the urge for change, it’s that feeling that connected me to Killmonger. Even Chadwick Boseman, who plays Black Panther, told Charlamagne Tha God and Angela Yee on The Breakfast Club that he related more to Killmonger as an African-American, than he did his own character, who is Native African. His own experiences with racism once fueled a fury within him too.
The last scene with Killmonger is devastating. His last lines shook me to my core, as I am sure it did for millions of other Americans. With a sword thrust into his chest, Killmonger sits and watches the sunset in Wakanda alongside Black Panther as he passes away. Before Killmonger dies, Black Panther tells him that he could save his life. Killmonger denies the offer, realizing that he would serve the rest of his days as a prisoner for his crimes.
With the last of his energy, Killmonger states that he wants his corpse to be thrown into the ocean, like his ancestors. “I would rather die than live in bondage,” spits Michael B. Jordan, comparing himself to the slaves that jumped ship before reaching America in chains. In that moment I cried. A villain's murdering rampage has never been justified in such a riveting and emotional way before. That last line was like a knock-out punch. As if his extremist murdering had been erased from my memory, when Jordan delivered that line, all I wanted was his redemption.
The last time any movie villain gave such a spirited performance, he became an icon. Heath Ledger. Yes, Michael B. Jordan’s performance is on that level of greatness. King T’Challa is a regal king, and the women surrounding him (that effectively run his empire from a military and scientific standpoint) are astonishing to behold. The action is beyond entertaining and the script is powerful and moving. Every character brings their A game to this film, and Black Panther is a cultural moment for Black people across the nation. I couldn’t help but feel excited for the little Black boy dressed as Black Panther sitting a few seats up from me. Beautiful, rich, and vibrant representations of Black culture, for this young man to soak up and be proud of, had him glued to the screen.
Even with all the positive energy in the air, all the love and pride flowing through the room, the emotion that Michael B. Jordan left me with was more powerful than anything I’ve felt at the movies. That painful rage, that feeling of angst that builds up when the topic of slavery or Jim Crown is brought up. That acrimonious tension that resonates in my gut when I see videos of police brutality or ignorant politicians fueling a race war. That feeling was replaced. A resolve, a euphoric feeling of relief spread from inside me instead. Michael B. Jordan said what so many Black people have felt for years. He took centuries of angst and translated it into a character that was so bad, he was good. He immaculately articulates the angst of the Black man so well that it takes people of every color and sex down to the depths of their emotions.
Remember how Heath Ledger's Joker murdered endless people, but you still wanted to see him in more films? Jordan delivers that level of a performance... and the culture will never be the same.