Warning: SPOILERS below for Black Panther!
Erik Killmonger – specifically the villain twist of who he is and how he came to be – is Black Panther‘s secret weapon. Portrayed with majestic ferocity by Michael B. Jordan, Killmonger is arguably the best Marvel Cinematic Universe villain thus far. And he is no mere troublemaking bad guy for the superhero to defeat. As Black Panther unfolds, so too do pivotal revelations about Killmonger himself, his origins, and his motivations.
Just as the film’s depiction of T’Challa differs from the comics, director Ryan Coogler reconceives Killmonger as a shattered mirror image of the Black Panther. Their stories and fates were intertwined by grand design, and Killmonger’s new origin is a dynamic twist adding a compelling new gravitas that powers the events of the second half of the film.
This Page: How Black Panther Secretly Sets Up The Villain Twist
Killmonger’s Tragic Backstory Explained
It was a sin by T’Challa’s father King T’Chaka that led directly to the creation of Killmonger. Though Wakanda is an isolationist country, they send spies called War Dogs into the world to gather intelligence. One such War Dog was the Prince himself, N’Jobu, whose mission in Oakland in the early ’90s came at a time of particularly turbulent racial tension in California: 1992 was the year of the L.A. riots sparked by the Rodney King incident. N’Jobu witnessed black people in political and cultural distress trying to rise up and assert their rights. He felt Wakanda and its technology should be doing more to help them, but this would violate the traditions upheld by his brother King T’Chaka.
Related: Black Panther Character Guide
Instead, N’Jobu worked with black market arms dealer Ulysses Klaue to smuggle Vibranium out of Wakanda, which he planned to turn into weapons to arm the black people in Los Angeles. However, N’Jobu didn’t realize that his friend Zuri was himself a Wakandan War Dog, secretly sent by T’Chaka to watch his brother; when Zuri reported N’Jobu’s treachery, King T’Chaka to Oakland to confront his brother. Tragically, the prince pulled a gun on the king and Zuri, and T’Chaka plunged his claws into N’jobu’s chest and killed him.
However, N’Jobu had a son with an American woman. The boy’s Wakandan name was N’Jadaka, but he grew up with his American name: Erik Stevens. Even though, thanks to Zuri, the king knew about young Erik, who was just outside in the apartment’s courtyard playing basketball with his friends, T’Chaka opted to leave N’Jobu’s corpse behind for the boy to find. Knowing his father was murdered by the Black Panther (he even witnessed the Wakandan aircraft zoom away), Erik grew up resentful of Wakanda, his royal family, and his heritage, eventually becoming known as Erik Killmonger.
How Black Panther Secretly Sets Up The Villain Twist
This all comes as something of a surprise thanks to Ryan Coogler’s careful storytelling. He presents young Erik as an avatar to the outside world, rather than story-essential, and further deflects suspicion by having a different actor play the younger Zuri (rather than CGI de-aging Forest Whitaker in a style Marvel is wont to do). Even after that, the twist is so involved it avoids full detection; to guess Killmonger is royalty and will challenge T’Challa’s throne still doesn’t give the full picture. Perhaps most fun, the film has Killmonger – not T’Challa – be the one taught the history of Wakanda at the start, but plays it vague enough most won’t figure it out.
Black Panther deftly keeps the motivations of Killmonger, as Erik Stevens would come to be known, a secret for half of the film. At first, Ulysses Klaue is presented as the main villain the Black Panther hunts. Klaue is an enemy of Wakanda due to the smuggler’s past thefts of Vibranium and his various crimes, including setting off a bomb that killed the family of W’Kabi, the security chief of the Border Tribe. Killmonger works with Klaue on the outset to steal Vibranium from the British Museum, and later goes to great lengths to rescue the one-armed arms dealer from captivity, but it was all because Klaue was unwittingly Killmonger’s way into Wakanda; Killmonger kills Klaue and uses his corpse as “a token” to gain access to the hidden nation.
But Killmonger’s true goal is to claim what he felt was his birthright: the throne of Wakanda. The seismic upheaval that led to Killmonger being crowned King of Wakanda was borne out of King T’Chaka’s fratricide, as well as his choice not to recognize his nephew, the young Erik Stevens, over two decades before.
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