“The best villains are the ones who have a point of view you can relate to,” says Joe Robert Cole, the co-writer of Marvel’s massive new movie Black Panther. To judge from the reception given to Michael B. Jordan’s Erik Killmonger, who vies with chosen one T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) to rule the Afro-futurist country of Wakanda, Cole and director Ryan Coogler have crafted one of Marvel’s greatest screen adversaries. Jordan plays the hell out of the role, bringing pain and swagger in equal measure, but the crucial ingredient here is that Killmonger is rooted in more provocative real-world issues than any Marvel villain thus far, and many viewers are finding his plan all too persuasive.
“An antagonist hell-bent on arming all the black people in the world, Killmonger’s rage and rashness are more coherent than T’Challa’s rote Edenic promises,” wrote The New Yorker’s Doreen St. Félix. Cole likens the characters to X-Men adversaries Professor X and Magneto, who were themselves based on civil-rights leaders Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X. Like Professor X, T’Challa is the peace-keeper who is concerned for the welfare of his people and only relies on his superpowers when traditional diplomacy has stalled. Killmonger, by contrast, is a firebrand who growls the truths that soft-spoken T’Challa dare not say, and is unafraid to hasten violent revolution. Orphaned as a child in Oakland, then sent as an adult on bloody military missions to reshape the world, Killmonger has never known paradise, and he can barely believe that a black utopia like Wakanda will not intercede on the behalf of its oppressed brothers and sisters the world over.
“In a lot of ways, what T’Challa and what Erik want are the same things, but Erik is coming at it from a place of pain, and T’Challa ultimately finds a place of empathy,” Cole recently told Vulture. “With Killmonger, the idea was to take the thematic idea of what it means to be my brother’s keeper, and to find a way to personalize being African, being African-American, and the relationship between black people in the diaspora.”
The result is a character whose cold-eyed view of history is hard to argue with — the hashtag #KillmongerWasRight trended over Twitter this past weekend — though his eagerness to murder his collaborators, the peaceful guardians of Wakanda, and the children of those who oppose him suggest that Killmonger sees no real future beyond burning it all down. “With Erik, it’s not what he wants that makes him the villain, it’s how he goes about trying to get it, and how far he takes it,” says Cole. “That’s where he crosses the line into almost becoming the thing he hates the most, and the thing that created him: That kind of colonial, slash-and-burn approach of destroying someone’s culture. But what he’s talking about is something that I think T’Challa and all of us can relate to, where you’re wondering what has happened to our world and equality.”
Killmonger was so compelling in his righteousness that for Cole and Coogler, the bigger hurdle was to make T’Challa interesting enough to go head-to-head with his adversary. “It was tough,” confesses Cole. “That was a big challenge, to find the warts in him. What is it about T’Challa that we can latch onto? What’s the human frailty? He’s a character who does not easily get in his own way, so we had to find interpersonal struggles: Losing his father, finding his identity, his wanting to please and appease everyone. It’s hard because we rooted ourselves in the canon, and the way he’s written in the comic books, he really doesn’t have any flaws. He’s a hard person not to like, and he shows nobility in the face of sacrifice.”
To stay faithful to the comic-book version of T’Challa but also give him enough to wrestle with, Cole and Coogler decided to complicate his past: Our hero reveres his father T’Chaka, the assassinated former ruler of Wakanda, but comes to find out that the dead king’s motives and methods may not have been so noble.
“He’s taking on the burden of history, of what Wakanda has done, and he tries to right that wrong,” says Cole. “It’s more about that than him righting his own personal wrong, although at the beginning of the movie, he fundamentally believes in the Wakanda principle of isolation from the outside world. But Chadwick as an actor brings a certain humanity to it, so in there, somewhere, you always can see this thought of, ‘Maybe we should be doing more.’ The arc is that ultimately he finds his way there and challenges the new paradigm. He takes Wakanda into a new place.”
Throughout, Cole says he was amazed what Marvel allowed him to get away with, from the “colonizer” punchline given to T’Challa’s sister Shuri to the final, provocative lines spoken by Jordan as Killmonger. “Marvel was very supportive of the vision of the movie,” says Cole, “and the importance of that different voice. Some of Erik’s speeches and positions, we really tried to calibrate that to land the way we wanted it to land.” And land, it clearly has. Says Cole of the reaction to Black Panther and its tortured antagonist, “You just pour your heart into it, and keep your fingers crossed.”