Spoilers for Black Panther
Black Panther adds yet another complex and sympathetic villain to the MCU, and director Ryan Coogler was teasing Killmonger’s big twist from the film’s opening moments. Marvel is starting 2018 off with a bang, with Black Panther breaking numerous records both financially and critically; it’s currently the fifth-highest opener in cinema history and holds the best Rotten Tomatoes score of any superhero film. The accolades are unlikely to stop, either, as the positive press the film has received means fans will be coming back for repeat viewings.
Like the best Marvel movies, Black Panther definitely rewards those who rewatch it. Amidst all the spectacle, it can be easy to lose sight of the character development and story, but they’re all strong: audiences and critics haven’t just admired the film for its kinetic action sequences or overdue representation, but for the way it brings to life its characters – especially the antagonist.
Killmonger is one of the MCU’s best villains, right up there alongside Cottonmouth, Loki, Kilgrave, and Vulture. And like Marvel’s effective work setting up Adrian Toomes as a sympathetic villain in Spider-Man: Homecoming, Killmonger’s ultimate arc is teased out from the very start of the movie. Rather obviously, the entire pre-logo sequence is setting-up the twist; Black Panther‘s main story begins with who later learn to be a young Erik on an Oakland basketball court before showing T’Chaka’s fateful confrontation with his father, N’Jobu. But the true setup actually starts before that.
Black Panther opens on the story of Wakanda and how Vibranium helped make it into a technological marvel. The short sequence is exposition to be sure, but its framing as a tale handed down over generations fits perfectly within the themes of the movie and the comics it’s based upon. Crucially, though, it’s not King T’Chaka telling a young T’Challa the story, but rather Killmonger hearing about Wakanda from his father; it may not be clear upon first viewing of Black Panther, but Sterling K. Brown’s N’Jobu is relating it, presumably N’Jadaka.
Over an hour before his son is confirmed, we have a clear tease that T’Challa won’t be the only King descendant vying for the throne. Even without the following 1992-set scene, this is a subtle creative decision that further puts us in the mindset of Killmonger, seeing why he believed in the “fantasy” of Wakanda and understanding his cultural conflict. The movie Killmonger was changed from the comics in a number of ways, but the basic notion of him being an outcast from his homeland thanks to his father betraying the throne is intact. Everything in the twist powers that, showing us a new thread of generational revolutionary thinking passed from father to son. It’s that arc which gives Black Panther its unique socio-political tone and sets it apart from its peers.
Marvel has long been accused of having one-dimensional antagonists, but with the likes of Toomes and Killmonger over the past year have really shown a change in tact, making the villains as important to the story as the hero. Indeed, though T’Challa certainly has an arc in his debut film, it runs parallel to Killmonger’s – very fitting when you consider how the first two scenes of Black Panther actually revolve around him.
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