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Tony Stark was able to build this in a cave from a box of scraps, but what if he was never trapped with those scraps to begin with? What if… someone from another corner of the Marvel Cinematic Universe rescued him before the Ten Rings could put him in the cave?
Episode 6 of Marvel’s What If…? has Erik Stevens, aka Killmonger, aka N’Jadaka, son of Prince N’Jobu of Wakanda, rescue Stark. The antagonist of Black Panther goes on a spree through the MCU, getting the upper hand on almost everyone.
***WARNING: From this point on, there will be massive spoilers for Episode 6 of Marvel’s What If…? If you haven’t watched yet, what if you stopped reading and did pretty much anything else.***
The episode begins with The Watcher (Jeffrey Wright) overseeing the events of the first Iron Man movie. “Every journey has a beginning, but change one step along the way and you could end up at a very different destination,” he warns. The familiar attack from the first MCU movie begins (though Tony uses a flip phone instead of the twisting screen model) but before the Stark-branded missile can blow up the would-be Iron Man (Mick Wingert), Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) grabs it and tosses it away.
“The Ten Rings have reinforcements en route. Let’s move,” he says, referencing the terrorist group that began in Iron Man, and just got fleshed out for real in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. Tony takes a liking to Killmonger immediately. Over shots of Tony’s greatest MCU hits (including his sacrifice snap), the Watcher says, “Heroes are not born, they’re forged in darkness. Shaped in battle. Defined by sacrifice. Without Tony Stark’s fateful capture in Afghanistan, the Age of Iron Man would never come to pass. Though the man was saved, a hero was lost, and a villain was given a new chance.”
At a press conference, Tony makes Erik “Killmonger” Stevens his new chief security officer, and Christine Everhart (Leslie Bibb) asks what Killmonger was even doing in the Kunar Province. “I uncovered plans to assassinate Tony Stark while on a deep cover operation inside the Ten Rings,” he says, and then blows the whistle on Obadiah Stane (Kiff Vandenheuvel). Tony makes Killmonger his new COO and Stane hits the bricks.
Afterward, Tony and Killmonger toast “to killers” while Pepper (Beth Hoyt) asks Rhodey (Don Cheadle) for info about Tony’s new BFF. Rhodey sees nothing wrong, but Pepper is concerned because “everyone wants something.” Tony and Killmonger bond in Tony’s workshop, and Killmonger casually drops info on a thesis he had about a combat drone called “Project Liberator.” Tony says he can help him so he calls up the specs.
“Bold design choice,” Tony says of the over-the-top design, and Killmonger’s response is, “What, I like anime.” We didn’t necessarily know that about him, but we did know that about actor Michael B. Jordan. Let’s take a moment to reflect on how good Jordan is in this episode, because he really is quite good. Who says that craft doesn't matter anymore?
After an unsuccessful drone test, Tony realizes they need more power. He laughs off his own idea about a miniature arc reactor before Killmonger brings up vibranium: “With the right juice, it can act as a self-sustaining energy source.” His own ring is made of vibranium, and he knows that Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) has more. To cover their hides they send in Rhodey to do the dealing. Klaue has a Dora Milaje spear and a whole lot more, but Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) soon breaches his base.
Before T’Challa can take the vibranium, Killmonger takes him out with a Stark sonic taser. He takes one of his gloves, and when Rhodey asks him why he’s doing this, Killmonger counters by asking him why he wears the uniform of their own oppressors. “Fight for them? Die for them?”
“You’ve got to be part of the system to change the system,” Rhodey says. Killmonger’s rebuttal: “Nah. You can burn it down.” He kills Rhodey with the stolen glove, puts it back on T’Challa’s hand, and Klaue enters saying he’s already contacted the Wakandan War Dogs. Curiouser and curiouser!
Jarvis (Paul Bettany) was watching, however, so after the bodies of T’Challa and Rhodey are brought back to their respective homes, Tony faces off with Killmonger. He has powered one drone with Killmonger’s ring and sends it at him. It knows all of his moves, but Killmonger goes “freestyle” and uses the Dora Milaje spear to take it down. He proceeds to use the same spear to pin Tony to the wall.
“For a minute, I really thought it was you and me against the world,” Tony says. “Two gear-head orphans trying to do right by our fathers? We sound the same to me.” Not quite. Killmonger enlightens Tony before Tony dies: “The difference between you and me, is you can’t see the difference between you and me.”
Tony’s dead (must be Wednesday) and General Ross (Mike McGill) has the military seize all Stark assets, including the Liberator drone. They go into production and now there’s an army of them. Playing every side, Killmonger has Klaue show him the way to Wakanda before shooting him. He brings Klaue’s body inside, giving them the gift of justice. He tells the Dora Milaje that he is, in fact, N’Jadaka, son of Prince N’Jobu.
Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett) questions this, but King T’Chaka (John Kani) says it’s the truth. He tells Killmonger that he has the eyes of his father, and accepts him. No time for love, because Killmonger tells them all that “war is here.” The drones are a’coming. Okoye (Danai Gurira) isn’t scared but Killmonger has a plan anyway: let them through the shield and the electromagnetic interference will block the satellite uplink that controls them. Shuri (Ozioma Akagha) questions why anyone is trusting him, but Killmonger continues to bond with King T’Chaka and no one cares.
Queen Ramonda now acts as General, leading the Dora Milaje and the warriors of Wakanda. The drones move in, and the shields are opened. General Ross sees the hidden Wakanda appear on a screen in his drone control base and is astonished. Once they are in, the shields close, and the drones power down. Everyone’s happy!
What if… not really. T’Chaka tells Killmonger that he’ll “always have a home in Wakanda,” but Killmonger softly says, “I want a little bit more than that.” He uses a secret button to re-activate the drones, and battle commences. Queen/General Ramonda and Okoye lead the gorgeously animated battle as Killmonger jumps on a Rhino wielding the spear. He charges, fights side by side with both Okoye and the Queen, and they win. T’Chaka gifts him with the sacred herb and makes him the next Black Panther, and he wakes up in the Ancestral Plane.
T’Challa appears to him and asks, “Was it worth it, my cousin?” Killmonger justifies everything he did, but T’Challa isn’t having it. “You believe the cure for human suffering is more suffering.”
“The cure is power and now I have it,” Killmonger tells him. The wise spirit of T’Challa knows different: “Power, unearned, can be a very volatile force, cousin. It’ll get the best of you eventually. Either on your plane, or on ours.”
Ross, meanwhile, is fully prepping a war on Wakanda as a helpless Pepper watches. She isn’t the only one not charmed by Killmonger, however, because Shuri wasn’t in his bag either. Shuri visits Pepper, and she has receipts for every shady thing that Killmonger did in this episode.
“Mr. Stark was a genius, but he’s not the only genius,” Shuri tells Pepper. Together they will expose the truth. As we close, the Watcher says, “Heroes are never really gone. They live forever. As do the ones they inspire to carry on the fight.”
This series is starting to have a real love affair with killing Tony Stark, but aside from that, wow are we glad that this isn’t how things turned out. Tony is a genius, but Killmonger turned him into a puppet in just a few steps. Stark tech in the wrong hands turns out to once again be a bad thing, and the same goes for vibranium.
There’s always a trade-off, though. Almost everything is bad here, but King T’Chaka makes it out alive. He’s being played, but he has a pulse. Who knows what the state of the Avengers is, because while Ross fights Wakanda, Thanos and alien legions could definitely be prepping their attack. If Thanos were to come on down, would Killmonger fight against him, or try to dupe him as well?
For some reason, we can see this version of Erik “Killmonger” Stevens being able to charm Thanos, the Kree, Dormammu, the Ten Rings, Justin Hammer, and all the rest. Pepper and Shuri have a tough (and thankless) job ahead of them.
New episodes of Marvel’s What If…? stream on Disney+ every Wednesday.