Marvel’s Black Panther is a huge accomplishment in many, many ways. It’s the first depiction of Afrofuturism I’ve seen produced on such a massive scale, and it’s the first African superhero I’ve certainly ever seen, not to mention one of the first superhero movies to feature an almost entirely black cast – with a significant number of female players, at that.
Even more audacious, Black Panther – a Marvel product that is owned by Disney – actually engages with the systematic historical pain, suffering, and oppression that black people have been burdened with over the past four hundred years. I can safely say that I could have never expected a Disney superhero movie – usually entertaining, forgettable fluff – to deal with slavery and all of its consequences head-on.
And yet, the movie remains a mild disappointment for me, purely for story reasons. The movie actually wounds its righteous, rhetorical momentum by failing to hit a couple of key marks. But the more I think about the movie, the less certain I am that it could have possibly ever hit those key marks. I’m not sure.
The problem is the most intriguing character in the movie, and arguably the figure who embodies the moral heart of the story: the villain, Killmonger, played by Michael B. Jordan.
The problems with the story
Here is what I could gather of Killmonger’s plan in the movie Black Panther:
First he assists the South African arms dealer Ulysses Klaue in stealing a hunk of vibranium from a museum. Then he steps out of the plan (and the movie) for a while altogether.
The movie follows Klaue as he intends to sell the vibranium to the CIA, for reasons that aren’t entirely clear. The Wakandans accidentally blow the sale, leading to an intense scene in which they capture Klaue.
Killmonger pops back up to rescue Klaue, stealing him away and engaging with T’Challa (his cousin and, presumably, big thematic foil) for the first time – he shoots a grenade at him, knocking him to the ground. T’Challa glimpses the ring around Killmonger’s neck. No words are exchanged during this interaction.
The movie then follows Killmonger as he takes Klaue to an airfield, where he asks to go to Wakanda. Klaue refuses, and Killmonger betrays him, killing Klaue’s henchman, Killmonger’s own (unnamed, largely underdeveloped) sidekick/girlfriend, and then Klaue himself.
Uhhh – okay?
It is difficult to capture how sudden and abrupt this is. One minute, Klaue has been rescued by Killmonger – the next, Killmonger has killed Klaue, along with everyone Killmonger has associated with thus far in the movie. Not only are Killmonger’s goals and intentions still largely inscrutable to the audience, but his actions render nearly all of Klaue’s plot and all of Killmonger’s interactions with Klaue a moot point.
Because it turns out, all Killmonger needed to advance his plan was to take Klaue’s body – he suddenly materializes on the outskirts of Wakanda with the man’s corpse, and he quickly trades it for access with the royal council.
So – why did he steal the vibranium? Why did he rescue Klaue? Why did he get himself into a situation where he had to kill his girlfriend? What does he want? These answers are not made clear to the audience.
While this is occurring, we learn more about Killmonger, but this is purely tell, not show – the CIA operative helping the Wakandans essentially fills in all of Killmonger’s backstory within a couple of sentences while they look at a projected image of him.
Killmonger, having brought Klaue’s corpse to Wakanda (how he got there at all, let alone past all the technological barriers that presumably hide Wakanda from outsiders, is not known) is given a chance to speak to the Wakandan royal council. They consent.
He reveals himself as T’Challa’s cousin, and proposes ritual combat to determine who should be the King of the Wakandans. They consent.
He thoroughly beats T’Challa’s ass, and declares himself the King of the Wakandans. They (largely) consent.
One begins to sense a certain arbitrariness to all of this. Killmonger has some great lines, some powerful comments about racial oppression and accusations against the passiveness of Wakanda, but this is mostly the first time we’ve heard this from him. He really hasn’t talked a lot in this movie, up until this point. His character has not so much been developed as materialized, like he’s been teleported into the plot.
Worse, we do not see him struggle. He does not have to plot, plan, scheme, make deals, or compromise to challenge T’Challa and take over Wakanda. He just has to show up, declare himself, and kick T’Challa’s ass. The impression you get is that his entire coup takes place in a handful of hours, and it is executed almost single-handedly.
This is a serious failing. Killmonger says lines about how he’s prepared his whole life for this moment – but we haven’t seen any of that. And what we have seen of him thus far – the museum heist, killing Klaue and his own girlfriend – they don’t indicate this at all. The line, spoken with intense gravitas, borders on the absurd in the moment, like in Walk Hard, when Pa Cox offhandedly mentions he’s been spending years training his body and mind to kill his own son in a machete fight.
To challenge the king of a secret, fantastically advanced nation is no small task. We should see someone preparing for that. We should get the impression that it is quite hard to do. We get neither.
Now that he is (immediately, suddenly) King of Wakanda, Killmonger announces that they’re going to start sending advanced vibranium weapons to peoples of African descent around the world in order to help them rise up against their oppressors. The Wakandans immediately consent.
All of this feels deeply out of place. Killmonger mentions he has “war dogs” all over the world, but aside from the opening scenes, they haven’t been pivotal to the story. All we’ve seen of Killmonger is the museum heist, Klaue’s rescue, the shootout at the airfield, and then his coup. We have not seen him preparing for a vast global takeover. We had no idea this was even on the table until he said it.
Even more so, Killmonger has not only taken over an entire nation in, like, the amount of time it takes to smoke a brisket – he’s also gotten them to reverse hundreds of years of foreign policy, and launch an empire. This doesn’t work at all with our conception of Wakanda at this point – secret, difficult to access, advanced, and most of all, superior.
Because Wakandans are supposedly better than all the other nations, and, supposedly, they have been for a while. Their passiveness and indifference to black oppression is their critical failing, yes, but you don’t get the idea that these guys are schlubs or anything. And yet, after defeating T’Challa, they essentially become plot mechanisms for Killmonger’s will. We just met you, but you say you’re our king now? Sure, great! We just met you, but you want us to take over the world? Sure, great!
So when T’Challa returns, and defeats Killmonger, the victory feels robbed of significance. Because we now have the impression that it is pretty easy to become King of Wakanda, taking back that crown feels diminished.
In a lot of ways, this is a common Marvel feature – its villains are poorly-developed and largely forgettable. Hela from Thor: Ragnarok even follows a very similar arc: she literally pops into existence (whereas Killmonger just materializes on the border), takes over the nation, and goes about changing everything in seconds. The story isn’t terribly interested in how she does this, nor is it preoccupied with why: she’s the villain, and that’s just how these things go. Standard, unobjectionable comic book movie fare.
The difference is that Hela’s takeover of Asgard is not the point of Ragnarok. She is fun, and there’s some interesting nuances there about colonization and a brutal history of conquest that no one wants to talk about, but the point of the movie is to stick Thor in a weird, sci-fi dystopia where he has to fight the Hulk, develop quirky allies, and win his way back home. Hence why Hela’s takeover of Asgard takes place within the first, like, quarter or fifth of the movie – we’re not even out of the first act before she’s sitting on the throne. It’s business the movie is looking to get out of the way.
This is not the case for Black Panther. Killmonger is the point of the movie: he is the living embodiment of how Wakanda turned its back on the African peoples of the world, and enriched itself while they were enslaved, tortured, brutalized, and dispersed. His takeover of the throne is the crux of the whole film. So, the standard Marvel approach to villains falls miserably short here.
A conversation you don’t want to have
The problem here is that Killmonger, like most villains, is largely defined by what the hero does in the story – and T’Challah really has almost nothing to do.
Like, when he first takes the throne, his two big choices are, “Chase down an arms dealer,” and, “Maintain the foreign policy status quo of doing nothing.” This is… not a heavy checklist for a superpowered king. With nothing to do, there’s really very little for the hero and the villain to butt heads over, so the bad guy has to basically import the entire conflict by himself. When Killmonger drags the dead body into Wakanda, he’s essentially carrying the plot in a bag, as well.
Consider that the movie is missing a critical, classic scene that’s common to superhero movies: the sitdown. The setup goes thusly: the hero and the villain have engaged each other at least more than once. The hero is largely aware of the villain’s plans and circumstances, but not entirely (the villain, of course, has some tricks up his sleeve). The hero and the villain get into a situation where they can’t or won’t attack each other. It is at this point that they begin to talk, discuss each other’s arguments, and poke holes in what the other believes, before they are forced to part ways.
Sometimes these scenes last only a handful of seconds – an exchange of just a few lines. Other times they’re much larger, like the scene with Batman and the Joker in the holding cell. But this scene helps the audience grasp the stakes: it sheds light on how these two entities are working toward two different worldviews with two different sets of values – yet we begin to see the flaws in both, understanding that neither is entirely right. (There can be some shading here – the hero can be, like, 90% right, and only 10% wrong – but he can’t be 100% right, because that would be very boring. The point of the movie is usually that the hero has to adjust his worldview in order to win.)
But you can see why the movie never has the sitdown scene with Killmonger and T’Challa – because they’d have nothing to talk about! Killmonger’s position is, “Let’s do something,” and T’Challa’s position seems to be, “Gee, I dunno.”
This strikes up another Marvel comparison, this one with perhaps that world’s most famous, righteous villain, the bad guy you’d probably fight for if it really came right down to it: Magneto.
Much like Killmonger, Magneto is righteously fighting to protect the oppressed, and he’s willing to go to any ends to make sure that happens. The difference here is that Charles Xavier is fighting to protect the oppressed, too – he’s just pursuing the more peaceful means of persuasion, rather than going with war and division.
Compare this to Killmonger and T’Challa. Killmonger is Magneto, advocating for striking back and protecting the oppressed. But unlike Charles Xavier, T’Challa’s original position is just to keep doing… nothing.
Yeah. That sucks.
The movie could have stepped around this by having T’Challa start basically at the end of the movie – by incrementally increasing interaction with the outside world. This would give him something to actually do from the beginning, and would cause internal consternation in Wakanda, which you’ve got to have if you’re telling a royal intrigue story. It would also offer actual plans for Killmonger to interfere with and sabotage, and it’d be a point of conflict that could help elucidate the two men’s positions. Killmonger could say, “You think this is enough? After centuries of ignoring everyone else’s hardship? No, no, no – in fact, it’s time that Wakanda suffers just like the rest of Africa has.” Or something to that effect. This would create a more gradual, cohesive conflict, rather than having the villain show up and say, “Hi I’m king now, let’s take over the world,” and having the entire nation agree to do so in the space of, what, like an afternoon or something?
The images of Black Panther are full of messages – depictions of dignified, empowered Africans, men and women alike, living in a future that they’ve determined for themselves – but the story is anemicin comparison.
It is a great thing, to see Black Panther in this world. But Black Panther itself could have been much more.