One thing which superhero films tend to have in common is that their villains are pretty underdeveloped and two-dimensional.
All the great superhero films throughout history are the ones which break out of that stereotype, and provide the audience with some genuine drama, with human stakes.
If not, we’re reduced to watching a CGI mess of explosions and things falling from skies which have absolutely no emotional weight whatsoever.
Think of The Dark Knight, and the incredible polarity between the protagonist and the antagonist. That is where the true drama of that film lay, not in the set-pieces.
Heath Ledger’s Joker brought genuine dramatic tension, not just because of the physical danger he posed to Gotham and Batman, but because of the ideological underpinnings behind his anarchistic mania.
Therein lies the true aim when a writer is trying to write a villain, and all too often, they fail spectacularly.
In fact, we’ve not even had a villain worthy of standing in the shadows of the late great Ledger since 2008 when Nolan’s masterpiece hit cinemas.
At least, until now. Just last week, we were treated to a villain who not only can exist in the same conversation as the Joker, but in the pantheon of great villains of all time.
That villain was Eric Killmonger, from Marvel’s Black Panther, who is an example of a villain so good you kind of almost want him to win.
Think of Hans Gruber, whose charm and down-right charisma brought some twisted sense of delight whenever he was on screen.
That is what we have here with Michael B. Jordan’s magnetic performance in the latest MCU effort, a performance which transcends what would otherwise be cast aside as a fantasy character.
Now, the same can be said for the rest of the film, in that its politics rise above the bubblegum source material of comicbook lore, but that doesn’t detract from Killmonger’s success.
A royal heir who is orphaned and ostracised as a child, his abandonment at a young age causes the development within him of some pretty radical notions which lead him to clash claws with the newly crowned Panther.
Jordan’s performance is layered, it is full of burgeoning rage, vulnerability, and arrogance, but it is also internal.
The outward performance we see of Killmonger sizzles with downright coolness, but under the cloak we see genuine anguish during.
In Killmonger, we see a lot of the tormented youth twisted by his experiences, much in the vein of Adam Driver as Kylo Ren in Star Wars, but I would argue with Jordan’s performance, we get more to chew on.
Whereas Ren can sometimes come across as a whiny kid, many of Killmonger’s grievances are legitimate, and rooted in so much more than daddy issues.
But as with everything Killmonger does, the roots of the struggle for liberation become twisted into his vision for an empire.
As Adam Serwer writes for The Atlantic:
Yet because Killmonger’s plans are rooted in a recognizable idealism and a wounded soul, the audience is supposed to empathize with him, even care for him. Viewers are meant to mourn him as T’Challa does when he dies, invoking his ancestors who chose to be consumed by The Void rather than toil in bondage.
When T’Challa goes to the spirit world, he sees his ancestors. When Killmonger goes, in one of the most moving scenes in the film, he sees only his father; the rest of his ancestors have been lost to The Void. He is alone in a way T’Challa can never comprehend.
This tragic juxtaposition of ideologies is a genuine triumph for the creators of Black Panther, and something which the MCU hasn’t seen the like of before.
Much like Ledger’s Joker is present in his absence in the final instalment of the Dark Knight Trilogy, Killmonger’s void will no doubt be felt throughout the rest of Black Panther’s mythology.
And what, if not that, is the true meaning of a good villain?