The Marvel Cinematic Universe has not shied away from cultivating the pain and suffering of a people in order to better develop characters and plotlines of its movies. You see, it’s not enough to win over an audience by merely placing their favorite comics onscreen. People watching want to connect with that character in some deep way that almost allows an opportunity for kinship. This approach also serves as an acknowledgment of the fan’s culture plight, and also serves as a legitimization of that pain by pop culture. This has been done several times in contemporary Marvel films, starting with X-Men in 2000, and ending this past weekend with Black Panther’s Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan).
In all of the Marvel-based films since 2000, there has yet to be an embodiment of “Black pain” or the Black American’s struggle with the trappings of systematic racism since slavery. Sure, these films do have Black characters, but the personal perspectives of said characters are limited to things like the mission at hand (which is Storm’s primary occupation in all the X-Men films) or a light handling of the background information in order to connect a character to the plotline (think Jamie Fox’s Electro in The Amazing Spider-Man 2). None of these films grazed the surface of that character, or their struggle beyond the involvement of the White characters they interact with. Black Panther changed that. Director Ryan Coogler presents audiences with the enraged Killmonger who embodies the complexities of Black pain, complete with elements that White America deny ever existed.
Such a thing is only possible with a Black writer (Joe Robert Cole) and director (Coogler) creating from a personal experience with the topic. In this one character, they both have captured so completely a pain that is universal within the Black community. The abandonment of family (or the African nations) and growing up without a father are prominent, as are living in a space where people die from senseless gun violence daily. Having all of that ignored and summarily dismissed by the world helps create that pain, especially when the world has no interest in helping right the wrongs that left the Black community in its current state.
All of this comes spilling out onto the screen through Killmonger’s rage. You can hear it in one scene as he speaks of Wakanda’s standing by as 2 billion brown people all over the world suffer. His words burst with emotion, more moving than any scene of Spiderman kissing Mary Jane could ever be. Packing all of this into one character and one film took extensive knowledge and lived experience to accomplish. Coogler, an Oakland native and lifelong comic fan, had that experience and more.
The character Killmonger’s development is very much like Magneto's in X-Men First Class and X-Men Apocalypse, where his origins are exposed. The films unpack the character’s roots in the Holocaust, where he saw countless bodies of his people exterminated like rodents. There, he also lost his own parents, and barely survived through the starvation, torture, and death. Later, the young man meets a girl and builds a life and family with her, only to have them murdered by authorities before his own eyes. The rage, hatred, and loss, the old abandonment scars, and that jaded view of death are all wrapped into his character’s motivations, actions, and powers.
The powerful reactions come together in a survivor’s pain. It is wrapped so thoroughly throughout Magneto’s character and his storyline that the audience begins to truly understand the villain and love him. In fact, his categorization as a villain becomes unclear. Audiences become sympathetic to his suffering and how that is still driving his behavior in the present. The word “antihero” starts bouncing around as people begin to see that there is no “curing” Magneto of his pain without purging the world and history of the evils that created him.
Killmonger’s rage and pain propel the character, fuel his fight and make him a force to be reckoned with. He is smart (an MIT grad) and fierce, a part of the CIA’s elite kill squad. He is also a man who never forgot where he came from and whose fault it was that he was there. In seeing this character’s past and present onscreen in such a complete depiction, it becomes harder and harder to hate him or to call him evil. His body bears the evidence of his kills for the CIA, yet those same scars appear as symbolic bullet wounds for the gun violence the community experienced when Killmonger was a child. He carries the fatherlessness, abandonment from his people, scars from his community, and the memories of inequality within him. These tragedies have turned into a rage that Killmonger has directed toward Wakanda and Black Panther.
Magneto's need to right the wrongs done to his ancestors makes him more human than we once understood, likewise, Killmonger’s sharing of the Black pain with the audience makes it hard to hate him. I actually wondered if he deserved his seat on the throne, for a moment at least. But then all that pain made him do what pain does—destroy everything in his wake. In this way, Killmonger’s pain is exposed along with the realization that Black Pain (like Magneto’s) was a pain that could never be quenched. It had already poisoned the body. Something else must be done to fix it.
By exploring Black pain on screen in Black Panther as they did other themes, the MCU not only makes itself officially inclusive to Black people, it legitimizes the very thing that history and politics tried to deny even existed. In Black Panther, the subject of Black pain is no longer a theoretical topic of scholarly papers and rap songs. It receives the same treatment as the Holocaust—an event deemed the worst case of human suffering in the world. However, Killmonger’s past is set more than 50 years after the last Jews were liberated from Auschwitz. Thus, his character is also an indictment of a modern world that still ignores the Black pain this character embodies.
For Black people, Killmonger is an acknowledgment long overdue. To other MCU fans, he may just be a cool-ass villain. However, to popular culture, he is a walking, talking embodiment of the wrongs done to a people, wrongs that still plague the community. By bringing Black pain to the MCU, Coogler found a new way to touch a community that has been represented solely by depthless characters. He has also drawn in a new source of strength and pain to the surface, where it must now be reckoned with and respected.