Marvel’s Black Panther is brilliant on many levels, but its greatest strength might be its willingness to challenge audiences with a villain whose cause is just, but whose tactics are abhorrent.
Superhero films are typically popcorn spectacles that focus on action, humor, and dazzling special effects. However, in recent years Marvel has indulged in more political subject-matter, such as the questions raised about unchecked power and government corruption in the latter two Captain America films.
Black Panther raises the stakes with an emotional storyline about fathers and sons and brothers and the dangers of absolute monarchies in the information age.
In Black Panther, Michael B. Jordan plays the lead antagonist Erik “Killmonger” Stevens, a former special operations soldier with a grudge against the ruling family in the fictional African country of Wakanda. That’s the surface story, but it’s the underlying subtext that’s drives the narrative. Killmonger was a child in Oakland, California during the 90s when his father was murdered, leaving him an orphan — a tale all-too familiar to this particular inner-city. (I reside about a mile from Oakland, it’s sadly more fact than hyperbole.)
The film reveals that Killmonger’s father, N’Jobu, was also the brother to Wakanda’s King, T’Chaka — until they had a falling out long before the events in the film. N’Jobu believed that Wakanda — a rich and powerful isolationist nation — had turned its back on the African people during the slave trade era. N’Jobu raged at the impoverished conditions endured by their descendants, particularly in America, while Wakanda continued to secretly prosper. His actions are the spark that kicks everything into motion.
N’Jobu sought to change the balance of power between the powerful and the oppressed. He conspired to steal some of Wakanda’s treasured Vibranium stores, to develop and distribute advanced weapons of war. T’Chaka killed N’Jobu, in part because his brother betrayed their nation, but also because he wished for Wakanda to remain in the shadows. N’Jobu was left behind, a callous and confusing decision that would come back to haunt Wakanda decades later.
This moral quandry becomes the core conflict in Black Panther. Killmonger grows up bitter and angry; he spends his life acquiring the skills necessary to seize power from Wakanda’s king, who was now the son of T’Chaka, and also his cousin. Both N’Jobu and Killmonger are just in their desire to seek societal change — their arguments make sense. Consequently, it’s easy to root for Killmonger, he seeks both retribution for his father’s murder and a continuation of his father’s mission… the problem is how he goes about it, through calculated violence and cold betrayal.
Interestingly, by the time we fully realize Killmonger’s rationale, we’ve already seen the hero of the film, T’Challa (aka Black Panther), doing precisely the same things. T’Challa chooses to continue his nation’s isolationism, ignoring the plight of suffering people beyond their borders; he also discovers his late father’s crime, and maintains the secret, which makes him a kind of accomplice.
This is complex stuff for any film, much less a superhero movie. Given its incredible success, audiences are clearly ready for the genre to mature. Marvel would be wise to continue embracing moral gray areas and investing in even more deeply flawed characters. In Black Panther, the hero and villain are equally right and wrong at the same time, which is a revelation!
This theme is revealed when T’Chaka advises his son, during a kind of vision quest in the spirit realm, that it’s hard for a good man to be king. To his credit, T’Challa flips the premise on its head during the film’s the final scenes. To heal old wounds leaders must acknowledge their errors, accept responsibility, and embrace change. This resolution suggests that the time for kings is over, the future is uncertain, but the risk is worth taking. The movie ultimately ends on a positive yet gray note, and that’s a big part of its brilliance.
Killmonger was both the hero and the villain of this film. His actions were wrong, but they forced T’Challa to confront his own shortcomings and become a better man, brother, son, and leader. Superhero movies should never be the same in the wake of Black Panther.