How WHAT IF...? Took Erik Killmonger From A Seemingly Sympathetic Antagonist To A True Villain
Erik Killmonger resonated with a lot of people after his introduction in Black Panther, to the point where some saw him as a hero. What If...?, however, has firmly established the character as a villain.
Black Panther arrived in 2018 to great critical acclaim. The film was particularly praised for its main villain, Erik Killmonger, played by Michael B. Jordan. Audiences connected with the baddie's duality, as he committed terrible acts for a seemingly noble cause. A side effect of his popularity arose, however, when many started interpreting Killmonger as a misunderstood hero, as opposed to a complex villain.
That interpretation became so popular that some even suggested he could be redeemed to become the new Black Panther in Wakanda Forever. It's been a few years since Black Panther came out, but a new twist on Killmonger's relationship with audiences recently presented itself, as Marvel Studios' first animated series, What If...?, provided a new perception on him with its sixth and ninth episodes, firmly establishing him as a villain.
Before delving into how the Disney+ series accomplished that, let's look back at Killmonger's backstory for those unfamiliar with his MCU journey. Black Panther introduced Erik Killmonger as the son of Prince N'Jobu, brother of Wakanda's former king (and T'Challa's father), T'Chaka. N'Jobu was killed by his brother after T'Chaka discovered he was responsible for an attack on their country. T'Chaka then abandoned Erik in the U.S., which led the boy to grow up hating Wakanda, eventually plotting a scheme to rule the country and give its weapons to oppressed people around the world.
Such a scheme took him down a dark path, turning him into a cold-blooded murderer that carved each one of his kills onto his body. In the film, he murdered an innocent museum expert and a group of guards to steal a piece of vibranium. He then murdered his own girlfriend just so villain Ulysses Klaw couldn't use her as leverage against him in a standoff. After that, he killed T'Challa's advisor, Zuri, and even used his newly found super strength (courtesy of the Heart-Shaped Herb) to choke a Wakandan woman when she refused to do his bidding.
Simply put, Killmonger was a psychopath. One could argue that his intentions to help people in need were somewhat admirable (albeit misguided). But any well-meaning intentions he may have had were offset by his extremely violent nature, and his apparent desire to perpetuate the circle of violence he had put himself in from a young age.
How What If...? Established Him as a True Villain
Killmonger returned in animated form for two episodes of Disney+'s What If...? The first one, "What If... Killmonger Rescued Tony Stark?" saw Erik saving Stark and becoming his friend. Secretly, though, the villain was plotting a version of the plan he executed in Black Panther, which led him to kill T'Challa, James Rhodes and Tony himself. He then brought a massive war to Wakanda to make himself look like a hero, which ultimately allowed him to become the new Black Panther. These acts were depicted in an unmistakably villainous light, planting the seeds to (perhaps inadvertently) course-correct people's perception of the baddie.
Killmonger then returned in Episode 9, "What If... The Watcher Broke His Oath?" He was chosen by Uatu to help stop Ultron from destroying the multiverse. He did his part to take the robot down, but ended up double-crossing his team to take possession of the Infinity Stones. Through that, Marvel Studios firmly established Killmonger as a man with ill intentions, as opposed to the misguided antihero that many had seen him as. Granted, this was an alternate version of Killmonger, but one that shared the same backstory and goals as the one featured in Black Panther.
The Complexity of Killmonger
Keep in mind, this is not to say that Killmonger was just your average bad guy. Ryan Coogler, Michael B. Jordan and co. created a layered individual whose cruel actions were motivated by a traumatic past and a deep-rooted desire for revenge. It was a smart exploration of how differently tragedy can shape people. Most superheroes are born out of pain, and so are villains, but it's how they choose their experiences to shape them that sets them apart from one another. As a juxtaposition to T'Challa, Killmonger was a standout depiction of that contrast.
Of course, this isn't to fault people who saw Killmonger as some sort of antihero. That simply speaks to the incredible character work done by the people behind Black Panther. Given his terrible actions, cruelty and backstabbing nature, though, it's for the best that What If...? cleared any doubt about Killmonger's true nature.