Everyone knows the age-old trope: the honorable and infallible protagonist versus the nefarious bad guy, a stark contrast of good against evil. We see it all the time, but in a fresh turn, Marvel has provided us with a nuanced villain with Erik Killmonger (portrayed by Michael B. Jordan) in this year’s Black Panther. This twist of the standard narrative is representative of the many ways that Black Panther manages to break boundaries. (A warning for those who have yet to see the movie—spoilers lie ahead.)
The blockbuster film opens with a brief history of the nation of Wakanda, a fictional country tucked somewhere between Uganda and Kenya. Wakanda has the world’s largest store of vibranium, the strongest metal in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Thanks to this resource, the nation is extremely affluent and technologically advanced, way beyond anywhere else on Earth. To protect their wealth they portray themselves as an impoverished country and avoid international affairs so as not to expose themselves.
On the opposite side of the world, Erik, a young boy of Wakandan descent grows up in Oakland, California. Despite his royal blood, he comes of age in America facing harsh racial oppression that is unknown in Wakanda. After enduring and witnessing injustice his whole life, it is not hard to understand why this boy matures into Killmonger, the Pan-Africanist threat to Wakanda’s sequestered nature. Killmonger wants to take over the kingdom to give power back to the people that look like him. To achieve his goal, he would export vibranium across the globe to arm those who have been placed at the bottom of the social pyramid simply because of the color of their skin. He is calling for a revolution. He enters the U.S. Special Forces to be trained as a warrior and starts to rack up kills—all in preparation for one last victim, the Black Panther and king of Wakanda, T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman).
It is Killmonger’s motivation that breaks the mold of his archetype. On paper, he is nothing but villainous: the countless dots on his skin, one for each kill (hence his name), prove that he is a murderer, and he puts the beloved heroes of this story in danger. That being said, his ideals reveal his own desire for a better world and challenge Wakanda’s non-interventionist policy. Killmonger sees how, in its prosperous state, the kingdom can help so many, yet it hides from the world and does nothing. While he may be the antagonist, using tactics of war and violence, Killmonger plays his ambiguous role by speaking hard truths and fighting in the name of liberation.
In the final battle between T’Challa and Killmonger, we see these subtleties fully fleshed out. Instead of the tired symbol of a trial between righteousness and wrongdoing to which we have grown so accustomed, we witness two figures, filled with intricacies and contradictions, clash in a way that is much more applicable to real conflict, with all of its complexities. Once all of the action has faded from the screen, Erik Killmonger is given a choice—he can either die now or live the rest of his life behind bars. Without hesitation, he chooses death, but not before speaking one last potent line: “Just bury me in the ocean with my ancestors who jumped from ships ’cause they knew death was better than bondage.”
After Killmonger’s downfall, his influence resonates with T’Challa, who is grappling with his own ideals. The Black Panther ultimately decides to stop standing by while Black people continue to face adversity. Instead of a world war, however, he makes Wakanda step out from the shadows to aid those in need through programs promoting social change. At the end of the day, there is no traditional fight between good and evil, but rather a question of one’s moral obligation to fight injustice and a decision between two radically different solutions, if one chooses to act. In a rare moment of grace for a villainous character, Killmonger’s passion pushes the Black Panther to realize that he needs to make the choice to act.
Killmonger isn’t the only reinvented stereotype in Black Panther; time and again, gender roles are smashed throughout the film. At the forefront of this representation are the Dora Milaje, the badass, all-female warriors entrusted to protect the kingdom at all costs. With their fierce, honorable leader Okoye (Danai Gurira) and synchronized battle movements, they upend the cinematic standard that combat is only a man’s domain.
While action movies are likely to show off a token femme fatale, Black Panther breaks boundaries by depicting a myriad of different female roles. Where romance is involved, T’Challa’s love interest, Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), is far from a damsel in distress. In fact, she saves the Black Panther’s life more than once. As a skillful spy and bestower of wisdom, Nakia shatters the norm that the female co-star largely exists to elevate the male lead and to steal his heart. And of course, we can’t forget the girl who steals the show, Shuri (Letitia Wright), the brightest (and funniest) mind in Wakanda and driving force behind all of the latest technological updates. It is the witty and innovative Shuri who breaks the mold of the traditionally male tech geek and wonderfully caps off the set of strong, dynamic women in the narrative.
At its heart, Black Panther is still about the Black Panther, but all of these spectacularly constructed characters play off one another, creating a complex and sturdy basis for the hero to thrive upon. With its political conscience and high production value, Black Panther not only raises the bar for superhero movies of the future, but it also fuels the hopes of those fighting for their equality all over the world.