The following contains spoilers and if you haven't seen it you shouldn't read this. Don't act like I didn't warn you.
The best thing about Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther is its villain.
Even using the word “villain” to describe Erik Killmonger is doing a disservice to the character. Erik is an antagonist to our titular protagonist but to say his cause is evil is to miss the point of the character entirely.
The definition of heroes and villains in stories hasn’t really changed much since the days of Beowulf. The hero is a larger than life character who possesses all the great characteristics of humankind we all wish we possessed. A hero goes above and beyond in defense of others but perhaps more importantly a hero has a foe to vanquish. Since then this concept has taken hold in most stories to the point where a good hero can’t exist unless they have a good villain. What this can lead to is a reduction of complexity in the personality of both the hero and the villain to the point where both are just caricatures, where the world is black and white and there is no room for nuance.
The truth is that the real world isn’t that simple. Truly great stories embody that.Movies that portray the world in a realistic way should also carry over the realism of the world over to the portrayal of the “villain”. This is the strength of Erik Killmonger in Black Panther.
Perhaps the best moment that reflects how narrow the definition of a Hero can be and what shows how Erik can easily fit the category is the challenge ceremony. When the measure of what it takes to be King and Hero of a nation is who can beat up who in ritual combat, Erik is very clearly the most fit to be King. The way in which he has trained for and focused on this moment is downright heroic. Sacrificing himself to go through rigorous university programs, enlisting and serving in the toughest military roles all to get him there. A man possessed with a singular focus. That’d be a hell of a montage scene. Once he has vanquished his foe in the throne room the vision for his country is simple, take its strength, its resources and take them out to the world to empower the oppressed. Rule them the “right way”. A Wakandan Manifest Destiny. Worked for the USA right?
Erik Killmonger above all shows us that you can be right but go about it the wrong way. It’s the old Big Lebowski scene of , “Am I wrong?” “No Walt, you’re just an a--hole” scene played in a much more complete way. The uncomfortable thing about him is that he’s right. His father being murdered by his uncle was wrong, one of the richest and most advanced nations in the world turning a blind eye to the oppression of people is wrong, but coming from a position of hate is incorrect. He highlights that the problems of the world are real and the angry voices in the world perhaps are right, but coming at it from a position of hate is wrong. What will make T’Challa a good king is the fact that comes from a position of love, of surrender, of caring for his people and the world at large. His mandate is ultimately not derived from ritual combat, but from his ability to unite his people where hate has come to try and divide. It’s not enough to be right, you have to go about it the right way.
T’Challa at the end of the movie realizes that the “villain” was right and in this sense the villain won. His world view prevailed, and Wakanda will lower its walls to the outside world begining in the very place where “Killmonger” was born. Erik Killmonger is not a villain, barely an antagonist, but above all he’s a martyr.