Is Black Panther’s Killmonger the Best Villain Since the Joker? – Wisecrack Quick Take
Welcome to this Wisecrack Quick Take on Black Panther!
Directed by: Robert Tiemstra
Written by: Matthew Theriault
Edited by: Mark Potts
Produced by: Emily Dunbar & Jacob Salamon
Is Black Panther’s Killmonger the Best Villain Since the Joker? – Wisecrack Quick Take
Hey Wisecrack. Needs-a-haircut Jared here. So we just saw Black Panther, and gotta say- it’s probably one of the better Marvel films; and the element that elevates it is something rarely seen in the MCU: a complex antagonist. Even the best Marvel films feature villains that fit the same generic pattern: try to take over the world for reasons that are rarely more complex than they are for Pinky and the Brain. It’s just what Marvel villains do. Ego wants to take over the universe because he’s egotistical. Hela wants to take over Asgard so that she can then take over the Nine Realms. And Hydra wanted to take over the world because they’re literal Nazis.
But Killmonger is different. He’s got compelling and relatable reasons motivating his attempted global conquest, so much so that we found ourselves asking: is Killmonger even a villain at all. Welcome to the Wisecrack QuickTake on Marvel’s Black Panther. And as always, spoilers ahead. So what motivates Killmonger? Simply put, he’s seeking retribution for the injustices leveled against people of African descent by many Western countries. This includes the obvious – like slavery and segregation, but also other wrongs including redlining, in which unfair government loan policies forced blacks to live in ghettos, and racial profiling by police, in which increased patrolling in impoverished black neighborhoods contributes to the mass incarceration of black men in America, a plight which current Black Panther writer Ta-Nehisi Coates often writes about.
And by the way, if you’re interested in hearing more about Coates and how Afro-pessimistic views are being expressed in pop culture, I shamelessly recommend listening to the “Get Out” episode of our movie podcast, Show Me the Meaning. Anyway, though these injustices are only obliquely alluded to in the film, (including a humorous bit with Shuri calling Bilbo a colonizer) they form the obvious subtext every time Killmonger mentions the plight of blacks living outside of Wakanda. A plight that Wakanda could presumably fix. And this leads to one of the film’s central questions: should Wakanda do more to address the inequities of the outside world? Initially, the Wakandans want to maintain their isolationist politics, and Killgrave wants to conquer the oppressors, thereby colonizing the old colonial powers.
This juxtaposition of Isolationism versus Colonialism (Colonialism being the conquest and control of weaker nations by a stronger foreign power) is one of several false dichotomies introduced by Killmonger that characterize the thematic structure of Black Panther. So what do I mean by “false dichotomy?” Throughout the film, Killmonger prompts a number of binaries such as Isolationism versus Colonialism, or Traditionalism versus Advancements. But as the film ultimately reveals, there’s no reason to look at these issues as a choice between two absolutes. There’s usually a third way, a middle path between the two extremes, or what Aristotle called the Golden Mean. And this ‘Golden Mean” defines T’Challa’s character arc. T’Challa grows when he learns to avoid the simplistic solutions at the far sides of the spectrum. So let’s explore these dichotomies.
The first is a question of how to construct a group identity: national identity versus racial identity. The people of Wakanda are extremely nationalistic. They view the world as divided into two groups: Wakandans and everybody else. This leads to a “Wakanda First” attitude among many citizens. They’ve built walls, refuse refugees, reject trade, and offer no foreign aid, all in the name of protecting Wakanda, because they value the lives of those who share the same heritage and culture as themselves. But Killmonger, having grown up in America, has developed a strong sense of racial identity. For him, because Wakndans have the same skin color as blacks in the rest of the world, Wakandans should see themselves as part of a global black community. Among the first things he says when he takes the throne is something like “all around the world, people that look like us are suffering.”
In his speech to the United Nations at the end of the film, T’Challa rejects both the Wakandan’s nationalism and Killmonger’s ethnicism, and instead accepts the middle road offered by humanism. He specifically states that all of humanity is one tribe. It’s a surprisingly color-blind message, but a welcome one. The second false dichotomy is Traditionalism versus Progress. For all of its technological advancements, Wakanda is an extremely traditional society; regularly engaging in ancient rituals such as the combat for the crown or the ingesting of the heart-shaped herb. For Killmonger, progress requires getting rid of traditions, such as when he destroys the garden of heart-shaped-herbs and refuses to continue the ceremonial combat with T’Challa. One could even say his philosophy echoes that of Kylo Ren: “Let the past die. Kill it if you have to. It’s the only way to move forward.”
For T’Challa, the middle ground is keeping what traditions he can but rejecting what wasn’t working, specifically Wakanda’s isolation and its hostitlity with the Jabari. The film’s final false dichotomy is the aforementioned Isolationism versus Colonialism. Most Wakandans believe continuing their centuries-old tradition of isolationism to be the most prudent path to maintaining peace, including T’Challa initially. Killmonger, on the other hand, subscribes to a theory mentioned frequently in the film – that the world is getting smaller, and soon there will only be the conquered and the conquerors. Killmonger’s Solution: the Wakandans should take part in the same harmful colonialism that’s afflicted black individuals for centuries. Killmonger seeks to repay historic injustices tit-for-tat by arming oppressed black communities around the world with advanced weaponry and inciting race riots and radical revolution.
Killmonger’s political philosophy is reminiscent of French Revolution, which was fueled by fantasies of the oppressed exacting revenge upon their oppressors. Killmonger’s desire for vengeance is so impassioned that he seems to give no thought to governing after destroying Western society. Like his construction of color and race, this too is a result of his American upbringing. Killmonger’s story is like that of many African Americans for whom military service was the only viable path out of poverty. And it was the American military which trained him in the art of regime change, his time in the special forces having been spent overseeing various coups and conquests in the middle east. Not only does this result in him being more interested in revolution than actual rule, it’s also darkly ironic: he wants to colonize the so-called colonizers because that’s what the colonizers taught him to do.
This is part of what makes Killmonger such a sympathetic villain. And yes, he is a villain. Unlike T’Challa, he doesn’t look for the Golden Mean; he’s an extremist, in both his beliefs and violent methodologies. But this extremism is painted as a direct results of Western society grappling with its messy past. Killmonger is a dark reflection of the sins of our forefathers. Just as he blames T’Challa for the actions of his father T’Chaka, he blames everyone else for their ancestors’ actions as well. But T’Challa rejects this when he says to M’Baku that he is not responsible for past Wakandan kings’ mistreatment of the Jabari people. And while T’Challa doesn’t deny the wrongdoings of Westerners past, he acts without animosity towards their present-day descendants. It’s this optimism which allows T’Challa to chart a course between the extremes of isolationism and conquest.
By the film’s end, T’Challa is persuaded by Killmonger that there is a need for Wakanda to provide global aid and assistance, just without the violent conquest. The movie closes with T’Challa building an outreach center in Oakland to help the people that Killmonger was fighting for. And that’s what makes Killmonger such a phenomenal villain. Whereas most bad guys represent a clear-cut evil that must be unilaterally defeated, Killmonger’s disposition is one that must be adopted. Killmonger doesn’t just challenge our protagonist, he guides him and provides him with the insight he needs to become a truly great King. In the face of very divisive issues, T’Challa is able to synthesize these solutions in a way that works best for Wakanda and the world. It’s like Afro-futuristic Hegel! Hope you guys enjoyed the movie as much as we did. And as always, thanks for watching. Peace.