Character Analysis Part 2: Villains

Villains, like Heroes, are instrumental to the success of any story. But what makes them stand, and what makes them fall?

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Villains are often thought of as simply evil. Wrong. Bad. Set in contrast to the Hero, who is simply good. But as we discussed last week, Heroes can and should be more complex. As should villains.

Most Villains are depicted with morals and goals opposite the Hero, which has them engaging in reprehensible, “villainous” actions. This can range from cartoonishly “evil” things such as Lex Luthor stealing 40 cakes (this actually happened), or truly despicable things like Lex Luthor finding the cure to muscular dystrophy and making the treatment actively worse so he can make more money.

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Regardless of motive or specific action, Villains are antagonistic forces to the Hero of any given story. They are the obstacle(s) to overcome, the mountain to climb. In other words, the cause of all the conflict in the story. Because of this, many villains are active movers of the plot; while many heroes are passive reactors (not always, for part of a Hero’s progression can be finding the courage to become a more active character). We see this in many early Disney films.

An early Disney villain’s actions tended to shape, if not outright control the entire story they were in. Meanwhile, the protagonists were simply along for the ride. The result? The Villains, not the Heroes, are some of the most beloved Disney characters.

No one really cares about Princess Aurora or Prince Phillip. But Maleficent is an icon. Simba’s journey from boy to king is moving, but his Uncle Scar is much more charismatic. His song is also superior, in my opinion. We don’t condone their actions, of course. But we just love to see them carried out!

The Marvel Cinematic Universe has done many things right over the decade it’s spent building itself up. Writing Villains is not one of those things. But there are exceptions. One of those is obviously Thanos, who could take up an entire article or two on his own. But there is at least one other that I believe works extremely well in both concept and execution: Killmonger, Black Panther’s radicalized, and very angry cousin.


Now, I was not particularly entranced by Micheal B. Jordan’s performance in particular. Nor am I a proponent of any version of Killmonger’s ideology–extreme, moderate, or otherwise. But what I did, and still do appreciate about this character is that he is the perfect Villain. At least, in a narrative sense.

Everything that T’Challa is, Killmonger isn’t.

T’Challa is a golden child, born in Wakanda and arguably nurtured to be its King; Killmonger was left alone after the death of his father, to climb his way up through blood.

T’Challa values tradition, and is hesitant to break from it; Killmonger is irreverent, even hateful towards tradition.

T’Challa takes on kingship like a responsibility, or a burden; Killmonger wields it like a nuclear bomb.

T’Challa does not enjoy violence, but uses it as a means to an end; Killmonger boasts about the number of people he’s killed, and wears them as those strange bumps on his body.

Finally, we have both characters’ shared goal: become the undisputed ruler of Wakanda, then help who they each see as their people.

That’s more than most Marvel movies, and most movies in general have going for them. But I wouldn’t consider Killmonger such an amazing villain if his narrative purpose stopped there. So what is it? What is this thing Killmonger does that makes him not only stand out from the other Marvel villains, but other villains in general?

He makes T’Challa change his perspective. The end of Black Panther is often mocked for the CGI battle, or the “bury me with my ancestors” line. However, I wish to laud it for the change it shows in the protagonist. The entire movie asks the question “Should Wakanda remain secluded or help the world–specifically other people of color?” Killmonger takes the issue to a militant extreme, and though he is ultimately defeated his words did not fall on deaf ears. For, after the dust settles, a newly crowned T’Challa decides that Wakanda will indeed come out of the shadows to help the rest of the world.

Killmonger sticks with me because he sticks with T’Challa. He wasn’t just the latest obstacle for the next Marvel hero to overcome; nor was he just racial tension personified. He was a Villain who got his Hero to question themselves–and in the end, push them to change for the better. That is what being a Villain is all about. Applying pressure to the Hero in order to force change.