Erik Killmonger, the villain in “Black Panther,” is one of the greatest political thinkers ever to appear in a blockbuster movie.
And that is about as far as I can go without delving into spoilers. If you’re reading this and haven’t seen “Black Panther,” stop what you’re doing and go watch the movie. It’s worth it and this article can wait.
Now back to my point about the political philosopher Killmonger.
He may not be the greatest superhero villain, period (I still believe that distinction belongs to Heath Ledger’s Joker in “The Dark Knight”), but even antagonists in this genre who have been outwardly political pre-“Black Panther” haven’t done so as directly or brilliantly as Michael B. Jordan’s character. Magneto from the X-Men films may have been fighting for the rights of the oppressed, but he was still doing so for a fictional group (mutants). The political conflicts at the heart of “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” and “Captain America: Civil War,” though intelligently depicted, likewise focused on analogies to real-world problems rather than the genuine articles. And while The Joker in “The Dark Knight” and Bane in “The Dark Knight Rises” may have embodied various strains of anarchistic nihilism, the former has evolved into an all-purpose cultural icon rather than a specifically political symbol, while the latter was too silly to ever be taken entirely seriously.
Killmonger, on the other hand, is such a compelling political philosopher that many viewers aren’t even convinced he is the story’s real villain.
“He’s a Wakandan who was raised in Oakland around the time of the LA riots. He’s experienced the hardship and structural disadvantage experienced by racial minorities in America, and he wants to use Wakanda’s resources to liberate oppressed peoples around the world,” writes Osman Faruqi in Junkee. “It’s an extremely sympathetic position, yet the film keeps reminding us that he’s the bad guy — he ruthlessly murders his own accomplices and he dethrones T’Challa, nearly killing him in the process.”
Yet Faruqi protests the fact that the movie insists on vilifying Killmonger, pointing out that the violence that Killmonger advocates isn’t necessarily worse than the real-world violence that Wakanda has allowed. “Wakanda, under T’Challa’s reign, is just choosing to ignore it. Killmonger at least wants to do something to end the oppression…