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What Marvel could learn from the Joker and Killmonger

Marvel finally hit a home run with Killmonger in Black Panther. Again, it’s probably past cliché to say that Killmonger is Marvel’s best villain, but it’s true. Killmonger hits all of the right notes a legendary villain should hit, and in many ways, Killmonger is the MCU’s Joker. Like the Joker, Killmonger challenges Black Panther in a way that goes beyond “daring-do.” He’s asking T’Challa who he is as a person. Indeed, the film itself reiterates the question, “Who are you” several times, and one of the ways it does that is with Killmonger persistently questioning T’Challa’s worldview.

Up until Killmonger makes his presence known, T’Challa believes his father was without fault and that Wakanda should remain an isolationist nation. However, he doesn’t realize he was being ignorant to the strife happening to, as Killmonger says, the people “who look like us” around the world. Nakia tries to get this through T’Challa’s head, but it’s Killmonger, as T’Challa’s long lost cousin, who finally drives the point home. Killmonger is one of those who have been left behind by the country that should have welcomed him and protected him, and he’s back to ask T’Challa and the nation if they are what they claim to be. Are they benevolent, or is this just a front for cowardice and, at worst, apathy? T’Challa hasn’t seen himself as being apathetic until that moment, and the question, plus the answer he arrives at, changes him forever.

Of course, a lot of this genius goes to Ryan Coogler and Joe Robert Cole for their script, plus Coogler’s direction and Michael B. Jordan’s performance. Marvel should think long and hard about what these guys did and how they elevated Marvel’s approach to villainy, since even Thanos’ idea –that life can get out of control if the population isn’t left in check – is scary Malthusian practice that, to be honest, is laced in classism and racism. Infinity War never quite explores this as deeply as it could or should.

For a villain to be legendary, they have to hit on something that resonates on a soulful, even spiritual level. Killmonger asks T’Challa if he is worthy – of being the king of a nation and of just being someone who claims to care about others. Killmonger challenges T’Challa to think beyond his limited scope and in the process, T’Challa becomes a better human being and leader. T’Challa might have eventually come around to Nakia’s vision for Wakanda as a pacifist nation that commits itself to worldwide outreach, but who knows how long that journey would have taken. Killmonger was a catalyst to the process.

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Rise above

The Joker hits on that idea that life is meaningless and that humans are nothing more than barbaric beings who would rather kill each other if they had the chance. The Joker, like the Christian devil and evil beings of other religions, wants us to believe that there’s nothing inherently worthy about humanity and about ourselves. The devil, the bad conscience, whatever you want to call it, wants us to give in, throw up our hands, and say, “Yes, I’m apathetic, I’m hateful, I’m unworthy, and there’s nothing I can do about it.”

But just like the Joker is a legendary villain, Batman becomes a legendary hero. Not only does he wrestle with the existential questions, but he shows how to rise above them. Instead of giving in, he meets the challenge and then raises his own challenge – what if, instead of lying down and giving up after going through a dark night of the soul, humanity embraced that darkness to see the light?

Batman is one of the few hopeful superheroes who surrounds himself in darkness and despair. Batman was birthed by despair, so it’s only natural he would feel at home in it. But what Batman has done – and what the Joker hasn’t accounted for – is that he understands how depraved humanity can be. But he also knows how worthwhile and, indeed, good, humanity can be as well. Batman has, in his own way, made peace with the good and bad of human nature and instead focuses on saving those who need his help. He’s come out of the dark night of the soul a new person with strengthened resolve. In part, this was because of his own trauma after losing his parents. But it was the Joker, his greatest adversary, who transformed Batman’s superheroism.

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