If there has been one longstanding critique of the wildly successful Marvel Cinematic Universe, it's that Marvel has a villain problem, with bad guys that have tended towards underwhelming or all-together disposable. (Malekith the Accursed, anyone?) It's a point of contention Marvel's maestro, Kevin Feige, previously acknowledged: "If a big criticism of ours is that we focus on the heroes more than the villains, I think that's probably true. I don't think it will always be true."
With Black Panther and Michael B. Jordan's villainous Erik Killmonger, it's damn sure no longer true.
"The goal was to build a character that will entertain you, educate you, inspire and also scare you a little bit," Jordan explained to ET's Nischelle Turner. "For the first time for me playing a character like that, obviously, you want to put your best foot forward and try to shoot for the moon. Hopefully we got something that reaches up there."
The comic book version of Erik Killmonger made his debut in (the cringe-worthy titled) Jungle Action #6 in 1973, a Wakandan native who was exiled from the country because of his father's ties to Ulysses Klaue and, after growing up in Harlem, returned to stage an uprising. Onscreen, that's been somewhat altered. Jordan is Erik Stevens, an American black-ops solider who grew up in Oakland and earned the nickname "Killmonger" because of his penchant for carnage. (As evidenced by the scarring on his body, a new notched added for each kill.)
"A villain's agenda is deeply impacted by their backstory, their upbringing, their history, and Killmonger's was systemic oppression. That's what he grew up in in the States," Jordan said. "The only way he saw his way out was to go equip yourself, train yourself and take over."
Without delving too deeply into spoiler territory, Klaue (played by Andy Serkis) still factors into Killmonger's story, and Erik does have ties to Wakanda, which lead him to resent the secretive yet highly advanced African country for -- hypocritically, he argues -- withholding its resources from black people who are being oppressed around the globe.
In Jordan's Killmonger, we see a thin line between misunderstood and madman, but also there is a cultural relevancy -- of feeling systematically oppressed, of wanting to better your situation -- unlike any past Marvel antagonist. "You see where they're coming from," the actor explained. "You understand his rage. I think T'Challa and Killmonger are kind of the same person. They care about the same things; they just have two totally different ways of going about getting it."
That emphasis on creating a character viewers can empathize with and the notion that T'Challa (Chadwick Boseman) and Killmonger are two sides of the same coin is echoed by Boseman ("It's like Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier") as well as director Ryan Coogler. "He has something about him that triggers empathy with people, no matter what he's doing," Coogler said of his frequent collaborator, having worked with Jordan on Fruitvale Station and Creed. "In a way, that's kind of the secret weapon."
"We wanted to have a villain that was complicated and we wanted to have a villain that could challenge T'Challa and hit him where he's most vulnerable," Coogler added. "And T'Challa's not a vulnerable person. Not in the comic books and not in this film. He's incredibly powerful and strong and smart and hard to get to, as a sovereign leader of a nation should be. I think that in T'Challa, being such a uniquely gifted hero, we needed a uniquely gifted villain to challenge him."
Jordan points to Heath Ledger's Oscar-winning turn as the Joker in The Dark Knight as his inspiration in approaching Killmonger ("Heath's performance as a villain was so captivating I couldn't stop watching"), but Black Panther isn't the actor's first go at a superhero movie. As such, not only is his portrayal of Killmonger one of the best villains the MCU has offered yet, but a redemption of sorts, after the ill-fated Fantastic Four reboot.
"I'm not going to let a project that for whatever reason, you know, didn't turn out how I wanted it to, stop me from enjoying the things that I personally enjoy," he reasoned of his love of comic book films. "When I get a phone call from a director that I trust, and he tells me, 'Hey, Mike, you want to play a villain? I'm about to do Black Panther,' it's an easy yes."