It's not surprising that Erik Killmonger became a Black Panther fan favorite. After all, villains are often most compelling when you can see their point of view as clearly as a superhero’s. Killmonger's insistence that Wakanda has ignored the rest of the world’s population of black people and left them to languish while Wakanda flourishes hit hard in the gut, especially as a black American living in the present. If it were suddenly revealed that a black city was hidden from the rest of the world and is the most technologically advanced on the planet, I too might wonder exactly what its citizens plan on doing to help their brothers and sisters across the globe.
In a way, Killmonger is like X-Men antagonist Magneto. Magneto, also named Erik, is a mutant with the ability to manipulate magnetic fields and control metal with his mind. One of the world's most powerful mutants, he is the old friend and foe of X-Men leader Charles Xavier (Professor X). Because he lost his parents during the Holocaust, Erik has desired to control the human race since childhood. He frequently uses his mutant powers to unleash havoc upon the world and sees mutants as a superior race that should make all humans bow to them. Professor X, on the other hand, believes that mutants and humans should live in harmony, even as mutants face constant hatred and fear for their powerful abilities.
Killmonger is no different from Magneto—he sees the evil in humans, particularly the white race, and how it has colonized and raped and pillaged the homes and lives of black people. To him, living in seclusion is not an option; he wants to empower black people across the globe the same way Magneto wants to strengthen his mutant brethren. But Killmonger doesn't want his people to live in harmony with the white race, he wants them all eliminated. This doesn't sit well with T'Challa, the Black Panther, king of Wakanda. And herein lies our blood feud in Black Panther.
It's easy to find the delight in Killmonger's side. If you're a black American or black African, you've no doubt faced the consequences of white supremacy in your everyday life. Killmonger may be the villain of the film, but he's drawn much devotion from fans who see him as squarely in the right and find T'Challa's methods weak. It's fun to entertain this idea, but it's also important to remember that villains are the people who often have the same desires as us but use cruelty to reach their end goals. Killmonger gleefully discusses killing fellow black people on the continent of Africa, merely so he could take down T'Challa. He attacks an elder woman in Wakanda, kills his girlfriend, and revels in abuse against women.
He's a villain because in the rendition of Black Panther that director Ryan Coogler has created, the women drive the story. T'Challa is a hero, yes, but if anything, it's Nakia and Shuri and Okoye who go on hero’s journeys in the film. Nakia realizes she does want to protect Wakanda as well as the rest of the globe, Shuri comes into her own as a warrior and not merely a creator of weapons, and Okoye realizes her devotion to the throne can be tested when the person who sits on it is immoral.
Coogler's version of this story uses black women to show us the morality of the world in a way that Christopher Priest’s seminal Black Panther comics, as beautifully rendered as they were, did not. Priest created the Dora Milaje, the fearless warriors of Wakanda, but he also created Nakia as, unfortunately, an antithesis to respect for black women. The Nakia of the comics is a woman so obsessed with T'Challa that she attempts to kill the other women in his life and aligns herself with Killmonger, an enemy of Wakanda. In the film, however, Nakia is a woman who wants to save the world and reluctantly fights alongside the Dora Milaje to save her country. She doesn't run away because her feelings for a man drive her into Fatal Attraction territory.
Yes, Killmonger makes some really good points. But as Coogler shows, we ought to look toward black women for morality in this world. And I can't root for a villain who has no respect for them.