As I’m not well-versed with the Black Panther comics, this post will only discuss the film’s depiction of Erik Killmonger with few references to the comics where relevant. Some of the points made here are also addressed in my analysis of the film’s themes overall.
Erik Killmonger (or N’Jadaka, his Wakandan name) is one of those rare villains able to garner more popularity and sympathy than the protagonist. Countless online users have expressed their ability to understand where he comes from ideologically, while still maintaining that his actions are wrong. Achieving a layered antagonist is a feat in itself: how can a villain be multi-layered without it appearing to endorse their evil ways?
Well, Black Panther achieves that delicate balance. Erik Killmonger’s actions make sense, reprehensible as they are. He grew up as an African-American while hearing tales of a heritage and family he supposedly belonged to, but was so far removed that he wondered if the tales told by his father were fictional. When his father was killed by his father’s brother (T’Challa’s father), Erik could have been taken in by his family in Wakanda. Instead, he was left to the mercy of the foster care system. His whole world ends the moment that Wakandan ship departs Oakland, California; for anyone, losing a loved one is painful enough, but for a child, it completely shakes their foundation. Had his family taken him in, his story would be so much different. Erik’s spiritual communication with his deceased father confirms this, as Erik is told that he will never be embraced by Wakanda.
Moreover, Erik’s experiences existing in American society shape his outlook on Wakandan domestic/foreign policy. Having witnessed and experienced systematic oppression, he is angry that a technologically-advanced and self-sufficient nation such as Wakanda isn’t actively liberating black people globally. Testament to his drive, he still overcomes obstacles facing African-Americans to graduate school early and M.I.T as well, one of the most prestigious universities in the U.S. He beat the system. While he became a black-ops soldier serving in Afghanistan and Iraq, he amassed a high kill rate. More importantly, he assisted in colonial-type operations in the Middle East, completely contravening his goal to free the oppressed. In order to liberate one group of peoples, he has no problem oppressing another group.
Interestingly, the cousins aren’t dissimilar: both T’Challa and Erik/N’Jadaka want to continue their fathers’ respective legacies despite both legacies being flawed. Both cradle their father’s bodies when they’re killed. T’Challa represents the life Erik could’ve had; privilege and prestige. Had the film’s outcome been different, they could have come to a compromise on how to approach Wakanda’s contribution to the world.
A stark contrast to T’Challa: Erik clearly views black women as disposable. Instead of treating them as fellow comrades in the struggle for empowerment, he exerts his superiority over them through physical violence and intimidation and even execution. Erik’s victim list includes: his girlfriend Linda, the priestess, a member of the Dora Milaje, Nakia and Princess Shuri. These examples have been flagged up by black feminists as evidence of his toxic masculinity. On the other hand, critics of these feminists argue that there can’t be an outcry if women engaging men in combat are killed since they elect to place themselves in danger. This still doesn’t account for the needless aggression towards the priestess and Linda or even Princess Shuri, who isn’t a professionally-trained soldier. This is what prevents him from achieving a heroism akin to T’Challa, even if T’Challa comes from wealth and privilege.
Although we witness Erik’s death in the film, I hope that he will make a return somehow (stranger things have happened in soaps), as he’s just too compelling to be left behind.