Non-recurring and vaguely uninspiring mwahaha-merchants are nothing new. Just look at Shakespeare (Don John from Much Ado About Nothing) or our current political situation (Zing). The movies have, in fairness, mostly been about the main characters - so the villains have taken a back seat, simply due to time constraints.
I mean...who even was the bad guy in Thor 2? What was the point of that?
That, however, is changing.
Be warned, below this line, there's gonna be a bunch of spoilers.
Now, my undying love of Black Panther has become obvious to anyone that has spoken to me since I went to see it. For which I feel the need to apologise. There's a lot of reasons for this.
The characters in this movie are just superb. They have presence, they are distinct individuals, they have strong looks. Without going into detail about all the African cultural touches - I mean dude's lip plate is amazing, you check that out, his lip plate is one of the coolest things I have ever seen in a semi-main character in a record-breaking movie - look at the four leading ladies.
The legendary Angela Bassett as Queen Mother Ramonda. Beautiful, resplendent and strong. Zulu head dress, covering white dreadlocks. A woman that carries herself with grace, dignity and wisdom. Letitia Wright playing Shuri, now officially the best Disney princess. Brilliant, warm, a technical genius, unashamed to be young, undyingly brave. Lupita Nyong'o putting in a sterling performance as Nakia. Spirited, vivacious, smart and competent. Like James Bond but actually interesting and not a horrible sexist boor. Danai Gurira playing Okoye of the Dora Milaje. A ferociously loyal and devoted warrior, whose skill with a spear and raw martial prowess would put most of the cast of Civil War to shame.
Not one of them sexualised. Not one of them tokenised. Not one of them objectivised. They all shine, in their various forms and ways. They all have their moments. The movie isn't afraid of showing them being better than those around them.
The titular character himself. King T'Challa, the Black Panther. Heavy is the head that wears the crown, and heavy is the burden of the secrets of those who came before. This story is a classic one - the trials and tribulations of the new ruler. I mentioned Shakespeare earlier, and let's face it, the actual plot of Black Panther wouldn't be out of place (in broad strokes) at the Globe four hundred years ago.
But of course, every good classic story of a ruler trying to make the right choice requires a sufficient foil.
Killmonger's first scene on screen is powerful in and of itself: a young black man in a museum, looking at looted African artefacts, asking a perpetually dismissive and presumptive white woman where they are from. He declares his intention of taking a particular item, and when told by the aforementioned white lady that it isn't for sale, he deploys some weapons-grade truth.
"How do you think your ancestors got these? Do you think they paid a fair price? Or did they take it, like they took everything else?"
Doesn't stop him taking a mask from the same case as the Wakandan item in question, but then - Erik Killmonger has been raised and trained to have little respect for any kind of authority except his own, since his father was snatched away from him.
What's his plan? He plans to buy his way into the Wakanda that he was denied by the previous king, with the body of Wakanda's most wanted criminal, a white man who thieved their natural resources under claims of their being savages. Once there, he plans on challenging the king of Wakanda for his rightful claim to the throne, being that he's the king's cousin - royal family severed from the line by his father's betrayal and the old king's murderous response.
Then when he claims this position - by right of ritual combat, an art that he has perfected over years of CIA-funded covert operations and regime destabilisation - he's going to take all that super-advanced Wakandan tech, and send it out to those struggling under the suppression of others.
Is he doing that because then he'll rule the world? Well, sort of. Because he is hoping that Wakanda will stop being a small secretive nation, and become something far bigger, far wider. A Wakandan empire, slaves throwing off their shackles and becoming their own masters. He literally states:
"The sun will never set on the Wakandan empire."
The means by which he won the throne become the means by which he will win the world - and whatever his intention, it becomes rapidly obvious that the driving force of justice and reparation has been pushed through a filter of the same imperialism that granted him his training.
It's a truth we all know, now. The dirty wars fought in other places using other lives as pawns, supplies and support thrown behind the side of the population we want to win. Iran-Contra was a scandal, but nowadays we are better informed. Hell - Rambo 3 is about the US literally funding, training and arming the Afghan Mujahideen against the Soviet invaders.
No prizes if you can guess who that funding, that training and those weapons got used against in the early 2000s.
Why is he an excellent villain? Because we can partially sympathise with his motives and his methods. We understand why he's doing what he's doing, and he's not just evil for the sake of being evil. His entire life has led to the point in which he joins the film's narrative. We know that it can happen.
He could have set out on this journey to bring down King T'Chaka and his entire family, to burn Wakanda down around the royal family as a punishment. He could have had the goal of doubling down on Ulysses Klaue's initial foray into Wakanda, to steal as much Vibranium as possible and sell it to the highest bidder - probably making himself a billionaire.
Instead, he did the harder thing - the more admirable thing - the thing that a lot of us may have tried and failed to do. He decided to enforce change, to force the society that made him who he was different, so that people like him wouldn't have to exist any more.
How easily could he have been the protagonist?
In his final scene - as he is shown the sunset over Wakanda that he was promised as a child - he kneels on the ground, breathing ruined, thoroughly beaten by T'Challa in combat. T'Challa, who in Civil War showed that in victory he is both gracious and wise, suggests quietly to his cousin that he can still be saved. Erik's response is blunt and raw.
“Bury me in the ocean with my ancestors who jumped from ships, 'cause they knew death was better than bondage.”
Erik Killmonger - his bare chest covered with the ritual scarification of hundreds of kills - is a warning. The path of the righteous isn't just to do the right thing. It is to learn from your past, to strive toward your future, but to be mindful of where that future is leading you. To know the casualties that might arise from your actions.
And like any good hero - any real hero - T'Challa can take a lesson from this conflict. He learns. A thought he was forming before becomes a full-fledged plan, and the doubt he had in his ability to be king fades as he takes hold of his new drive and new responsibility.
And so Erik Killmonger, whose goal was to bring Wakanda into the world stage and to lift up those who need it most - achieves his goal, even in death.
There's your villain.
Are you taking notes, DC?