Erik Killmonger rides a rhino in What If

The Marvel Cinematic Universe demonstrated some growing pains in its early years where villains were concerned, as the one-off adversaries regularly felt overshadowed by the flashy heroes. By 2019, however, filmmakers figured things out and audiences were delivered what remains one of the canon’s best antagonists: Michael B. Jordan’s Erik Killmonger. Equipped with a wholly reasonably philosophy, he is a tremendous foil for the titular protagonist in Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther, and his intelligence is matched with great threat thanks to his “by any means necessary” attitude. Because the character died at the end of the blockbuster, it’s unclear if we’ll ever get to see him back in live-action again – but tonight he made a triumphant return to the franchise via the latest episode of What If?

Erik Killmonger obviously had to share the spotlight in Black Panther, but Episode 6 of the latest Disney+ show from Marvel Studios very much puts him front and center, and showcases him much earlier on the timeline – nearly a decade before his featured arrival in the main MCU canon. The latest story guided by Jeffrey Wright’s The Watcher takes audiences back all the way to the beginning of the franchise, and as I’ve done with all of my recaps in recent weeks, I’ll start by highlighting the specific What If that winds up sparking the narrative…

Erik Killmonger throws a missile in What If

Killmonger Saves Tony Stark, And Reveals Obadiah Stane's Assassination Plot 

Because he tells James Rhodes to ride in a different Humvee when they are together in Afghanistan, Tony Stark is all alone when the Ten Rings attacks with the aim to capture him in Jon Favreau’s Iron Man – but the big deviation in the latest What If is that the billionaire playboy philanthropist isn’t totally without key help. It’s not specifically explained in the episode why Erik Killmonger finds himself on that particular battlefield on that particular day, but it’s a notable thing that he is given that he protects Stark and successfully stops the abduction.

But that’s not the only impressive trick that Killmonger is able to pull off. In addition to halting the assault, the soldier also uncovers who was responsible for it, and publicly revealing that information to the press results in Obadiah Stane being put in handcuffs.

Erik Killmonger with Tony Stark in What If

Killmonger Staves Off The Age Of Heroes

Heroes like Captain America, Ant-Man, The Wasp, and Captain Marvel were all established on Earth prior to the events featured in the 2010-set Iron Man, but it’s basically been made canon at this point that Tony Stark’s declaration of his superhero identity effectively changed the world. The announcement ushered in a new era that allowed even more superheroes to emerge, and that wave led to the franchise as we know it today. In the universe featured in the new What If, though, that never happens.

Because Tony Stark is never trapped in a cave with a bunch of scraps, he never winds up building the Iron Man suit, and thus the bulk of events that transpire during the Infinity Saga don’t occur. Instead, Stark is so impressed by Erik Killmonger that he hires the “hero” to be the new Stark Industries COO – but that’s a decision that comes back to bite him in a bad way.

Erik Killmonger wearing Black Panther glove in What If

Killmonger Murders T'Challa, James Rhodes, And Tony Stark

There is an exceptionally brief moment in the latest What If when you wonder if perhaps Erik Killmonger’s relationship with Tony Stark has steered him away from his goal to take the throne of Wakanda – but that comes to an end when he sets up the meeting between James Rhodes and Ulysses Klaue. It’s in this scene that the truth behind the character’s motivations are revealed, and things get upsetting as he is able to successfully murder both Rhodes and T’Challa (who arrives on the scene hoping to stop the illegal Vibranium sale).

The terror doesn’t end there, however. It doesn’t actually take that long for Tony Stark to realize what Killmonger is up to, as Jarvis keeps him apprised of everything happening relating to his business – but having the jump turns out not to matter. The drone technology that Stark and Killmonger develop together proves to be useless taking down its co-creator, and Killmonger is able to kill his partner with a Dora Milaje spear through the chest.

What If Killmonger Stark Industries robots

Killmonger Instigates War Between Wakanda And The United States

There are some elements of Erik Killmonger’s plan that line up with his counterpart’s in the main MCU canon – including his partnership with Ulysses Klaue, and his use of Klaue’s dead body as a bargaining chip to get into Wakanda – but the reason things split back apart is in the fact that the political structure of the African nation in the two universes is not the same. In 2019’s Black Panther, Killmonger is able to challenge T’Challa for the throne of Wakanda following the death of King T’Chaka, but in What If King T’Chaka is still alive.

Because Killmonger can’t become king, he instead opts to cozy up to his uncle and work to execute his vision of the world through him. This action is taken at the same time that he is manipulating General Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross into thinking that the killing of Tony Stark was a politically motivated hit by the Wakandan royals. By getting the United States to militaristically engage with the secretive country, the Vibranium-rich nation is forced to expose itself to the world, hastening Killmonger’s long-term goals.

T'Challa in Ancestral Plane in What If

Killmonger Meets With T'Challa On The Ancestral Plane

In Black Panther, it’s established that one side effect of ingesting the heart-shaped herb (beyond enhanced reflexes and strength) is the ability to temporarily access the Ancestral Plane and meet with your relatives who have passed on. In the movie, this leads Killmonger to have a special encounter with his father, but What If offers something different in that the villainous character is forced to confront the cousin that he killed.

Given the devastating news of Chadwick Boseman’s passing in 2020, the second episode of What If hit like a punch in the gut – with T’Challa proving to be a far greater hero flying among the stars than being limited to Earth – and there is a similar effect in Episode 6. Killmonger remains defiant in his meeting with the former Black Panther, though the deceased hero warns him that unearned power can be a volatile force.

Shuri And Pepper Potts Team Up To Try And Take Killmonger Down What If

Shuri And Pepper Potts Team Up To Try And Take Killmonger Down

By the end of What If Episode 6, it certainly seems like Erik Killmonger is on a path to conquer the entire planet – but there is a glimmer of hope provided for the world by the final scene. While the Wakandan prince may have a lot of key people hoodwinked, two individuals who question his motives are Shuri and Pepper Potts.

The former surprises the latter by showing up in her office in Stark Industries, and the two women quickly form a bond over their desire to take Killmonger down. How will they accomplish this mission? That’s a question left unanswered, and if the show never follows up on its cliffhangers, it may just be left for our imaginations to figure out.

What’s next for What If? Your guess is as good as ours, as Marvel Studios has not yet announced what story will be featured in the seventh installment of the series. Regardless, we’re excited to see it, and will be back next week with another recap analyzing all of its best deviations from the Marvel Cinematic Universe canon. Look for the episode on Disney+ next Wednesday, September 22 at midnight PST/3am EST.

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