Since Black Panther came out last month, no one can stop talking about all of the aspects that make the film so outstanding. One of those aspects is the film’s villain, Erik Killmonger, played brilliantly by Michael B. Jordan. Most of the buzz about Killmonger has been about what a sympathetic villain he is, which is not something we normally see. There’s no doubt, Killmonger’s perspective is a compelling one. Having grown up black in a poor neighborhood in America with a deceased father, and knowing about the technological wonder of Wakanda, Killmonger is in a unique position to see all of the ways in which Wakanda can help the world, but doesn’t. He comes to Wakanda to rectify that, and to get revenge for his murdered father. If that was the only information you had, you would probably think that Killmonger is the protagonist of this story, not the villain. Marvel took specific steps to make this character into a villain, and they can’t be overlooked.
First up, and I think the most obvious, Killmonger seems to really enjoy killing (the nickname “Killmonger” is not a coincidence). One moment that stands out is when he slices the throat of a member of the Dora Milaje. The gleeful smile on his face is unmistakable. He also talks about murdering Black Panther’s family, and anyone who stands in his way. This is one murder-happy guy, which is usually not a characteristic high on the hero scale.
It gets more complicated than that, however. We have to look at Killmonger’s actual plan once he has the throne. He essentially wants to use Wakandan advanced weapons to take over the world. World conquering – another characteristic usually not particularly revered, especially in this universe. Killmonger thinks that if Wakanda ruled the world, then it would be a better place. Ignoring the fact that Killmonger has spent exactly two seconds on Wakandan soil, and so has no idea how it runs, it’s also an instance of becoming that which you hate. There are a lot of mentions in this film of Western imperialism (Shuri calls Everett Ross a colonist), but if Wakanda took over the world, they would be the imperialists, the oppressors.
What’s more, the West has often justified its colonialism based on the fact that it was conquering people that they considered to be less than themselves, more barbaric or uncivilized, and by conquering them, they were therefore making these peoples’ lives better. If Wakanda uses the same excuse, aren’t they no better than the colonialists they despise? I can’t help but remember a moment from The Avengers that encapsulates this perfectly. “You think yourself above them?” Thor asks Loki of the humans Loki intends to conquer. “Well, yes,” Loki responds. “Then you miss the truth of ruling brother. The throne would suit you ill.” I think the exact same conversation could’ve been had between Black Panther and Killmonger in this film, except with the word “brother” replaced by “cousin”.
There’s nothing to say that if Wakanda did conquer the world, that they would be great rulers. They have been very proficient at ruling themselves, but they are also a small nation, with rich natural resources, and zero diversity in race, heritage or religion. All of these things make Wakanda much easier to be ruled peacefully. But what would happen if this small nation had to rule the entire world, with all of its different peoples, types of land, cultures, and conflicts that go back centuries, sometimes millennia. Even just the size of the world, without all of its complexities and challenges, would probably make it too difficult to be ruled by any one nation, even one as advanced as Wakanda.
There’s also the fact that in order to conquer the world, Wakanda would have to kill an enormous amount, probably millions, of innocent people to do it. You have to ask in that situation, does the end justify the means? I will say that Killmonger does have a major advantage over other Marvel villains in that he actually has good intentions. But, we can say the same of Ultron, who thought he was doing good by killing off the entire human population.
The Marvel universe is trying to tell us that the end does not in fact justify the means. Sending a nuclear bomb to New York City wasn’t worth it to wipe out an invading alien force; “holding a gun to everyone on earth,” as Captain America says in The Winter Soldier, to prevent crime, “isn’t freedom”; and killing innocent people to conquer the world to try to help it, is not helping at all. We can see then how Black Panther comes to his conclusion at the end of the film to help the world simply by actually offering help. Offering resources, advising other countries on important matters, sharing technology – this is the way T’Challa decides to make things better. And I think we can all agree, between the isolationism of traditional Wakanda and the extremism of Killmonger’s world-conquering, this is the wise decision, and the reason why Black Panther is the hero of the film, and the rightful ruler of Wakanda.