When Empire magazine published its list of the all-time top 50 villains in cinemain 2016, there was no place for any of the Marvel cinematic universe’s many baddies. In fact, only a single comic-book villain, Heath Ledger’s Joker from 2008’s The Dark Knight – made the cut. The MCU has had its moments when it comes to charismatic exponents of evil – Tom Hiddleston’s heartbroken yet icily evil Loki in Kenneth Branagh’s Thor and Cate Blanchett’s slinky but ruthless Hela in its sequel, Thor: Ragnarok, spring to mind. But it would probably be fair to say there have been as many misses as hits along the way.
One of the most heartening aspects of Black Panther’s success has been the way it bucks this trend. Michael B Jordan’s Erik Killmonger is the first villain since Loki to steal the movie away from a Marvel title character. It is in the persona of Killmonger, rather than that of Chadwick Boseman’s T’Challa/Black Panther, that righteous anger against colonialism and the ongoing mistreatment of people of African origin around the world is embodied. That he is the villain of the piece does not matter one bit. We understand his justified rage, and we understand equally why the violent course of action he takes in an effort to restore justice is misguided.
If we look at some of the greatest baddies in comic-book history, it’s noticeable that many of the best of them had understandable – at least on some level – motivations for their evil actions. Loki is jealous of Odin’s love for Thor and knows that he will never stand as tall in the Asgardian pantheon because he is an adopted frost giant, rather than a true-born native of the planet. Alfred Molina’s Doctor Octopus in Spider-Man 2 is driven mad by the death of his beloved wife in an experiment. Michael Keaton’s Vulture in the more recent Spider-Man: Homecoming holds a legitimate grudge against the unfettered latitude granted to the world’s superheroes.
Not all villains require complex backstories to explain their actions, of course. Darth Vader was fascinating even when we knew him only as a featureless, shiny, black, death cyborg (in the original trilogy) before all the emo-esque inner turmoil that led to his fall had been exposed (in the prequels). But Vader is arguably a one of a kind: the otherworldly blend of Nazi and samurai regalia that make up the remarkable costume worn by Dave Prowse in the original Star Wars films, as well as James Earl Jones’s ability to produce tones of velvet dread, created a monster the like of which had never been seen before.
In the absence of costume departments capable of sci-fi alchemy or performers of iconoclastic, if unwieldy, charisma such as Schwarzenegger, Jordan’s Killmonger looks like an excellent model for Marvel to borrow from in future. Perhaps Kevin Feige and his team could go one step further, and make the MCU’s next great villain a fallen superhero. Captain America: Civil War almost achieved this by shoehorning Robert Downey Jr’s Tony Stark/Iron Man into the temporary role of bad guy. Perhaps the tables might be turned, with a future episode seeing Chris Evans’s ultimate goody two-shoes Steve Rogers taking on a nefarious role.
It would be a risky manoeuvre, and one that would have toy manufacturers spluttering with rage. But Black Panther has taught us that the best comic-book villains are those who might easily have been the hero of the piece, if only they had made slightly different choices somewhere along the way.