SPOILER WARNING: The following article contains massive spoilers for Black Panther. If you have not yet seen the film, and don't wish to know important details about the ending, please bookmark this story and come back after your screening!
While Marvel Studios has had some issues with villains in the past, that problem is non-existent in Ryan Coogler's Black Panther. Michael B. Jordan's Erik Killmonger is not just charismatic and rich in character, but maintains a philosophy that legitimately stands against the one possessed by the titular hero. By the end of the story you are actually pretty devistated that he is killed in the final battle -- but there is a very good reason why the film never had any other conclusion in mind for his arc. As explained by screenwriter Joe Robert Cole,
The best villains are the ones that have a strong point of view, and a point of view that I think you can relate to. We wanted to try to approach him in a way where you understood exactly where he was coming from, and it was more about how far he took things that made him a villain more than it was his perspective. And ultimately by the end, [Killmonger] and T'Challa are almost at the same place.
I think that that connection between them and the idea that they are related, and the idea that one is African-American and one is African... there's such rich territory there that I think it creates a certain level of empathy and sympathy and understanding for who he is. And I think in the end, the idea that he would rather die than be in bondage is the fundamental historical connection. That's the only choice; there wasn't really the choice of living.
Joe Robert Cole and I dug deep into the development of Black Panther's script when I sat down with him last month during the movie's Los Angeles press junket, and one major point of discussion was the process creating the film's amazing antagonist. I asked about the approach that Cole and Ryan Coogler took guiding Killmonger's role in the story they wanted to tell, and in his response the screenwriter explained why the character always died at the end of the movie.
To borrow a description from Michael B. Jordan, Erik Killmonger is a revolutionary in Black Panther, and while his tactics are excessively violent, his goals are ultimately altruistic: he sees suffering in the world, and he aims to end it. In his characterization he carries with him centuries of oppression, and it is his aim to break the chains of his people around the world with Wakanda's incredible resources. It's really because of this perfect metaphor that Killmonger can't just end up a prisoner -- summed up in his last line while watching the Wakandan sunset with his cousin: "Bury me in the ocean with my ancestors who jumped from ships, cause they knew death was better than bondage."
Weighing all factors, Ryan Coogler and Joe Robert Cole made the right call when it came to killing Erik Killmonger -- but at the same time it's really a shame we won't be seeing more of him (remember how smart Marvel was to give us more of Tom Hiddleston's Loki right after he blew us away in Thor?). Perhaps Black Panther 2 can find some way to include him on the ancestral plane, or maybe find some way to explore his work as a mercenary in a flashback sequence. Regardless of the method, we definitely want more.
Black Panther is in theaters now.