There are many ways to get a superhero movie wrong, but there’s one hurdle that causes even the best of the best to falter. In the decade since the The Dark Knight, even the most memorable of the five dozen or so superhero movies that have flooded the market have lacked one crucial element: a villain that could even deem to be worthy of shining Heath Ledger’s Joker’s shinebox. That is, until Black Panther, Michael B. Jordan, and Eric Killmonger.
[Spoilers for Black Panther follow, obviously.]
A great cast. Dazzling special effects. A plot that hopefully revolves around more than just a giant CGI #thing that will destroy the universe. These are all crucial superhero movie components, but a larger-than-life villain is what can drive a whole film home. Sometimes, it’s the deciding factor between making a superhero blockbuster that is Fun But Forgettable, and the truly great thrill rides that we tell everyone to see immediately and lobby to get award nominations we know they never will.
The basic requirements of the supervillain are charm, showmanship, and charisma: the rogues whose appearances herald only terrible things for our heroes, but we can’t wait to see them anyway. An enemy so well-written and acted that they threaten to figuratively murder the hero on his own shit. The ones deployed by writer/directors with perfect implementation of the Jaws Theory: we see just enough of them to want more. For the right supervillain, their reappearance brings both relief and apprehension, and their absence just breeds ominosity. And in some applicable bonus cases they come with a motivation that, despite reprehensible consequences, still inspires some empathy.
In the 17 films preceding Black Panther, Marvel achieved this alchemy maybe twice. That isn’t noted to isolate the MCU as being alone in this design flaw, it’s just that most other superhero films of late have a myriad of other problems weighing them down—if Jesse Eisenberg wasn’t cosplaying as Heath Ledger, Batman v Superman would still be an awful film. (Wonder Woman is the only non-MCU film that shares the MCU problem of delivering on all other fronts except an engaging villain.) In the face of talent wasted like Mickey Rourke or Mads Mikkelsen, Marvel has two trophies: Loki and Bucky Barnes’ Winter Soldier. Tom Hiddleston’s devilish demigod definitely doesn’t lack for charm or charisma: he regularly threatens to steal Chris Hemsworth’s movie out from under him. Menace, however? Not so much. Thor gives Loki tangible, petulant bratty brother motivations, but he never inspires the creeping fear that he might, say, snatch Natalie Portman up and lock her in a room full of C4 and actually detonate the whole thing. And while The Avengers sacrifices a familiar face at the expense of making Loki seem formidable, he’s really just an ineffectual bully there to unite everyone behind the common goal of jumping him.
The Winter Soldier, meanwhile, trades Loki’s scenery-chewing for pure dread. In a short amount of time, we’re trained to recognize that anytime he shows up, someone’s going to get shot. The brutal matter-of-factness Sebastian Stan plays him with is chilling, but lest he come off as a robot, the matter of his agency is called into question, grounding the conflict into a human one.
Black Panther’s spiteful bastard Wakandan Eric Killmonger has the best qualities of both Loki and Bucky in spades and is deployed to even greater effect, through a combination of Ryan Coogler and Joe Robert Cole’s script and Michael B. Jordan’s performance. As a royal heir orphaned and abandoned as a child whose experience rendered him a vengeful adult, Jordan’s Killmonger ranges from feigned insouciance, arrogance, envy, vulnerability pinging from barely concealed to raw hurt, militancy, and a dash of regret.
Some have called Jordan’s line readings stilted and glaring amid a cast full of more expressive performances, but what seem like shortcomings instead read to me as intentional character details. He’s an MIT graduate who can infiltrate any government on the planet, but talks like YG. You call foul; I call it a direct and intentional rebuke to the regality with which the estranged family he loathes speaks. Or how about the way he lets his cool guy guard down when Forrest Whittaker tries to sacrifice himself to save T’Challa? There’s so much emotion and context loaded in the simple fact that he refers to Whittaker’s Zuri, whose betrayal of his father essentially created him, as Uncle James. And on the charming villain whom we hate to love side of things, note the way he smiles at Okoye’s horrified realization that he’s too much of a hateful, crazy fuck to pledge loyalty to, fealty be damned. Peep when he later removes his mask just to flash those gold caps at us again before killing one of her soldiers. Also see: “Hey Auntie.”
The script helps Jordan in spots, for sure. Eric’s reunion with his father in the ancestral plane is a heartbreaking scene, but less so for anything Jordan does himself. And he’s opposite Sterling K Brown, for whom tear duct manipulation is light work thanks to his day job on This Is Us. But there’s a danger and perennially bubbling seething rage to Eric that wouldn’t be there without Jordan’s sneers, Oakland-postured dead stares, and brusque snarls. He doesn’t actually commit too much villainy on-screen. His reputation implies more than we actually see; with the exception of Zuri and the cold-blooded murder of a nameless girlfriend, his only evil acts involve a lot of yelling. His threats, though, feel tangible, and his potential is easy to imagine.
If we want to take it out of the superhero genre specifically for a second and expand it to all nine-figure blockbusters, what Jordan does here plays much better than the oft over-praised work Adam Driver has been doing on Star Wars. Making the villain of a new trilogy a quintessential insecure millennial is genius on paper, but for the most part Driver’s Kylo Ren comes across as a bad Girls boyfriend that just traded the Carhartt for a cloak. His petulance is overpowering. Tantrums when a hostage escapes or Luke Skywalker taunts him don’t make him into a relatable villain, he just comes off as a clown our heroes would’ve long dispatched if it weren’t for family ties.
Kylo Ren has one more film to make or break his legacy, and a new promotion in the First Order tipping the odds in his favor. The biggest problem, retroactively, with Loki and Bucky? They went good. Both were solid storytelling decisions—Bucky was always a prisoner killing against his will, and Loki is electric enough to make even Marvel’s worst film (Thor: The Dark World) watchable. And a character whose allegiance can swing either way is always fun to have around. Part of the thrill of Civil War and Ragnarok is the shadow of a doubt their actions inspire, and I expect even more of that from Loki in Infinity War.
But I damn near clapped when Eric scoffs at the idea of sparing his life and expedites his own death just for good measure. As much as I’d love to have Michael B around in future Panther adventures, a tragedy that opts for the realistic inevitable over serial potential will always be more badass. The once-villain sneering from prison before uniting against a greater enemy and becoming a roguish ally is fun and very Disney but...pulling a knife out of your own chest after invoking ancestral suicide during the Middle Passage and rebuking the idea of ever peacing it up? That’s hardcore. It makes the Black Panther’s story hit that much harder.
Does Michael B reach Heath's Academy Award heights? Not quite. But out of countless big screen bad guys that we’ve seen thus far, some played by more veteran actors, he’s come the closest. Hail King Killmonger.