Everything about Black Panther, the penultimate Marvel film before Avengers: Infinity War, looks fantastic. Earlier this week, the studio released a new trailer for the movie, further cementing fan hype across the world. The trailer showed off more of the world of Black Panther, richly colored and wholly unique from every other Marvel affair. It looks slick as hell, but I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t also something that concerned me in the trailer. It comes right at the moment that Erik Killmonger, hopeful usurper of the throne and the main antagonist, is revealed to have his own Black Panther suit, and placing him into the same box as almost every other MCU villain: He’s an evil version of the hero.
Arguably the chief criticism of Marvel Studios and it’s cinematic universe is the lack of memorable villains. Outside of Loki and perhaps a few others (Ego, Zemo, and Vulture are high tier, but not quite Loki worthy), the MCU has no great villains. There are a few reasons for this, such as a lack of screen time in comparison to the hero, but one factor that certainly doesn’t help is that these villains can essentially be boiled down to being more boring versions of the hero. Just look at this quick list and see for yourself:
Iron Man and Iron Monger
Hulk and Abomination
Iron Man and Whiplash
Captain America and Red Skull
Ant-Man and Yellow Jacket
Doctor Strange and Kaecilius
You get the point. It’s no coincidence that several of these characters are the least interesting villains Marvel has ever done. People haven’t exactly been demanding to see Abomination again. Villains being a dark reflection of a particular hero is certainly nothing new. It’s a classic storytelling trope for a reason, and some of the best villains ever created have represented the worst of the hero. The problem with how Marvel does it, though, is that it lacks imagination. Iron Monger is just a bigger Iron Man. Yellow Jacket is just a yellow Ant-Man. Then look at villains like Ego or even the upcoming Hela and everything about them, from their design to just how they look standing next to the hero, makes them stand out. You can see then why Erik Killmonger literally being an evil Black Panther has me worried.
To be fair, Black Panther is still months away and it’s too soon to go ahead and say that it has a “villain problem.” It’s highly likely that Michael B. Jordan was given a lot to work with, or that he was able to elevate the role. If his character stands out, then we won’t really care that he falls into the same cliche as previous Marvel villains. Plus, from a story perspective, if Killmonger wants to take the throne from T’Challa, then he would have to prove himself capable of being Black Panther, which is a position given to the King of Wakanda.
There is also precedence for Killmonger becoming Black Panther in the comics. There are storylines where Killmonger actually assumed the title for a brief time, and he even has the same powers as Black Panther thanks to some serum he made (always with the serum). So, it’s not like Ryan Coogler and company are going off the map by making their own Killmonger wear the costume.
However, it was tough to see that moment in the trailer where Killmonger’s nano-suit forms over him and not get a little disheartened. I get that Killmonger needs some way to be able to stand toe-to-toe with T’Challa (who looks tough as nails in this movie), but that doesn’t make it any more interesting to watch. The suits even look exactly the same, except for some light color variation. It just feels like the same old Marvel pattern, which is a bummer for a movie that looks so wonderfully original.
Again, how effective Erik Killmonger is as a villain is entirely dependent on how things shake out in the actual movie. If the whole movie is spent teaching us how hard it is to be Black Panther, and Killmonger is talking a big game the whole time, then when he does prove that he actually is worthy enough to be Black Panther, well, then that’s pretty badass. It’s just that Marvel hasn’t done much to prove that they can pull the evil doppelganger off. Can Black Panther change that conversation?