As Black Panther roars through the theaters, people are just as fascinated by Michael B. Jordan’s Erik Killmonger as they are by Chadwick Boseman’s King of Wakanda. While Tom Hiddleston’s roguish Loki has charmed audiences and Michael Keaton’s blue collar heist-man the Vulture have been high points of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the franchise has been plagued by one-dimensional villains like the cartoonishly greedy Obadiah Stane and the flatly genocidal Malekith. Killmonger has managed to achieve a rare status as a comic book movie villain: complete empathy for his goal while never wanting him to achieve it. The Verge has crowned him the successor of the only other Marvel foe to do likewise: Magneto.
As an X-Men character, the cinematic Magneto was up until recently exclusively a Fox property. Alongside Doctor Doom (also a Fox property), Magneto is who many consider Marvel Comics’ greatest villain. As a Holocaust survivor and persecuted mutant, Magneto has all the reason in the world to bring the sins of his oppressors back upon him. Conversely, Killmonger is a product of the socially segregated system of urban America and wants to burn it all down. Both of their foes attain righteous through fortune: Xavier is a pampered rich kid while T’Challa is literally royalty.
Both Killmonger and Magneto represent an extremist response to systematic injustice and the threat of becoming that very injustice. Killmonger is fueled by outrage over centuries of dehumanization and exploitation upon people of African descent but is itching to murder his oppressors’ children. Likewise, for all his wrath upon Nazis and racists, Magneto is essentially a genocidal maniac fighting for the “superior species” to come out on top. Ultimately, both manage to improve on both their foe’s resolve and the narrative’s nuance. Killmonger, The Verve hopes, will return.
Riding a wave of good will, Black Panther is getting ready to make $500 million at the box office. The movie has already broken The Avengers’ Wednesday earnings record of $13.6 million with its own $14.5 million showing, an impressive feat for a movie released in the middle of February. The opening weekend’s $201 million box office also set the new record for February releases, beating 2016’s runaway superhero hit, Deadpool.
The movie’s runaway financial success has shown that the world is open and even hungry for superhero action movies of a different stripe, ones that don’t have to be simplistic fun or star Tony Stark. Defying archaic ideas on Hollywood marketability, the movies thrives at the box office while starring people of color and that might brush up against real world injustices such as institutional racism, nationalist isolationism, and the aftermath of colonialism. The film’s star, Chadwick Boseman, has proven himself to as a leading man able to carry a blockbuster in the role of T’Challa while Michael B. Jordan breaks away from his good guy typecast to play the sympathetic yet dangerous Killmonger.
While certainly not the first movie to feature a superhero of African descent (Spawn, Steel, Blade, and Catwoman all come to mind), Black Panther is, by far, the most high profile and successful to date. The titular character is an old Marvel mainstay, debuting in Fantastic Four #52 by Stan Lee (who naturally makes a cameo in the movie) and Jack Kirby. Since being released on the 16th, the movie’s positive image black empowerment has been seen as a beacon of pride and hope for children of African descent. Hopefully, Hollywood gets the message.
The entertainment industry is need of a hero. Homogeny has infected everything. Music has become the very definition of cookie cutter from synth-heavy pop songs about shallow romantic interludes to rap songs about cars and female anatomy. Every film in the theater is a regurgitation of the one before it, be it a CGI-laden cartoon, a remake nobody asked for, or yet another installment of a franchise reaching double digits. Corporate control of entertainment has strangled diversity and meaning. Yet, from within that very system, a voice calls out from within the gears of the machine. A movement has started, one that is both in the world but not of the world.
Within the music industry has come Kendrick Lamar, a Molotov cocktail of spiritual introspection and layered meaning to a genre that has stagnated into recreating spastically repetitive odes to materialism for the last decade or so. Kendrick’s artistry never disappoints, marrying both the radical and respectable together. His songs have been favorites of both the Black Lives Matter and Presidents. Like Dylan or Springsteen before him, Kendrick has become a voice of a generation that will resonate for generations.
As such, it makes all the sense in the world that he would be a major component of the Black Panther soundtrack. The latest addition of the monstrous Marvel movie machine is proving to be a phenomenon as buzz continues to build. The titular character is T’Challa, the king/superpowered protector of the fictional African nation of Wakanda. The film boasts a who’s who of the most prominent black filmmakers of today and is representative of black artistry and strength as well as a manifesto towards progress and quality in entertainment. It is no wonder Kendrick wants in.