Warning! SPOILERS to follow for Black Panther.
One of the main talking points coming out of Black Panther has been the success of Killmonger as a villain. Despite the Marvel Cinematic Universe's overall success, many of its villains have been criticized for being one-note, boring and forgettable. Michael B. Jordan's Erik "Killmonger" Stephens breaks that trend and stands out as a complex, compelling and somewhat sympathetic character. But while Killmonger is heralded as a great villain, the way Chadwick Boseman sees it, T'Challa is the real enemy because of what he represents. As the actor explained:
I actually am the enemy. It's the enemy I've always known. It's power. It's having privilege.
In a discussion with Ta-Nehisi Coates and Lupita Nyong'o at the Apollo Theater (via The Atlantic) Chadwick Boseman touched on some of the complex social and political issues that Black Panther explores. For the actor, who is not royalty, the power and privilege that T'Challa enjoys as monarch of a powerful, yet isolated nation is symbolic of the advantages that so many do not enjoy. This is in contrast to Killmonger, who has had to struggle and was not born into wealth or power. Despite being technically part of the royal family as T'Challa's cousin, Killmonger had to struggle and live a life devoid of privilege. By the time he finally fought, killed and survived to make his way back to his homeland, his views on the world and what Wakanda's role should be in it were informed by his own vastly different experiences. This difference of life experiences is why T'Challa had to go through Killmonger to truly become a hero the audience could root for, in Chadwick Boseman's opinion. The actor explained:
Killmonger is trying to achieve greatness... but there's an expectation of greatness for me. I don't know if we as African Americans would accept T'Challa as our hero if he didn't go through Killmonger. Because Killmonger has been through our struggle, and I [as T'Challa] haven't.
Chadwick Boseman brings up an interesting point here. So many stories throughout history have seen the poor peasant and the downtrodden underdog rise up and conquer the rich and powerful. But Black Panther's story is almost the complete opposite, making the character who has never known anything but privilege into the hero and pitting him against a villain who comes from nothing and has only known struggle. The majority of the audiences who have packed the theaters to see Black Panther, regardless of race, likely come from a background closer to Killmonger than T'Challa (most of us aren't royalty). So Chadwick Boseman wonders if African Americans could have accepted a character who not only doesn't understand their struggle, but whose actions are apathetic towards it.
That is what makes the dynamic between the cousins so fascinating. While his methods are wrong and his actions evil, Killmonger's beliefs have the ring of truth to them. Like many great villains, Killmonger sees himself as the hero in his own story. By being confronted with the hard truths about his cousin and the cost of Wakanda's continued isolationism, T'Challa changes his mind. T'Challa is then able to enact some of the change the villain desired, but instead of lifting people up using war and violence, he uses education and technology, thus becoming the hero that he could not have been without facing that struggle.
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