Killmonger\u2019s What If\u2026?<\/em> Episode Made Him Into Something He Never Was
The following story contains spoilers for Episode 6 of Marvel’s What If…, titled “What If…Killmonger Rescued Tony Stark”
It’s a thrill that through What If…?, the new quasi-anthology Marvel Cinematic Universe animated series, we get to catch back up with (alternate versions of) some of our favorite characters from the last 13 years of superhero movie escapades. This is realized in a major way in Episode 6 of the series, titled “What If…Killmonger Rescued Tony Stark,” when Michael B. Jordan gets to return to voice his character in an alternate universe where his character goes down an entirely different path. The only problem? As fun as this episode is, it kind of takes away what made Jordan’s character so great in the first place, instead having him be a part of what are seemingly twists for the sake of twists. It’s a fun, compelling episode of television, and not bad by any means—but by the end, never stops feeling just a bit off. Maybe that’s the point.
Part of what makes Killmonger—real name Erik Stevens, or N’Jadaka—such a compelling villain in Black Panther is the fact that his point of view, his anger, and his frustration are all warranted. Just like the Vulture (Michael Keaton) in Spider-Man: Homecoming, he’s a villain who makes a good point; T’Chaka left him behind, without a father, in his youth. There are things that Wakanda could be doing differently, for the better, and he’s going to use the resources that the hand he’s been dealt have granted him—combat skills, strength, and a mind with a penchant for good strategizing—to put his own plan in place.
Killmonger isn’t just power hungry in Black Panther. Yes, he wants to become the Black Panther, just as he eventually does in both the film and the latest What If…? episode, but the movie doesn’t show him going through all these different layers of deception and villainy to get there. He’s certainly not a good person in the movie; he murders throughout, but clearly he sees it as collateral damage to eventually make his way back to Wakanda, bringing the dead Klaue as a sacrifice to prove his worthiness.
The What If…? episode’s Killmonger goes to significantly further lengths to enact his plan. He kills not only morally questionable heroes like Tony Stark, but straight-up good people like Rhodey. He betrays everyone he comes into contact with, and it just feels like he’s more interested in playing one side against another, enacting one scheme after the other, rather than achieving the singular goal that we saw in live-action form.
Part of why this all feels off, even in the alternate, hypothetical setting of What If…?, is that it’s the most we’ve seen a character change at his core in an episode yet. Some of the biggest alternations of characters thus far have been drastic but believable turns. When Hank Pym was revealed as the culprit in the whodunit mania of Episode 3 (“What If…The World Lost Its Mightiest Heroes”), it makes sense; Hank is clearly disliked by his peers in just about every MCU appearance, and is obsessive and rude to Scott and even his daughter, Hope, in the Ant-Man movies. His turn after a personal tragedy 100% tracks (and that’s without even getting into the dark history of Hank Pym as a comics character).
The main heroes have also largely remained on their tracks. T’Challa as Star-Lord in Episode 2 (“What If…T’Challa Became a Star-Lord”) basically shows that the man we know lovingly as Black Panther would be just as pure of heart even outside of Wakanda. The same episode also showed that Thanos, a man set in his ways, could be equally set in his ways even if he gets convinced that his ideas of genocide were wrong.
Doctor Stephen Strange’s dark turn in the ultra-grim Episode 4 (“What If…Doctor Strange Lost His Heart Instead of His Hands”) might seem like a villain turn, but it’s one that, again, makes sense: Strange is introduced as an ultra-cocky and sometimes reckless character even before he becomes the Sorcerer Supreme (he plays “Name That Tune” while performing surgery, and gets into the car accident that eventually leads to him getting powers because he’s texting while driving). In the Spider-Man: No Way Home trailer, we see these tendencies coming out even more. So it totally tracks that he’d find a way to get what he wants, and not think about the dark consequences that could come as a result.
It does seem like What If…? is building toward something. And we’re never going to complain about getting Michael B. Jordan back into the MCU (and maybe they’ll find a way to bring him back for Black Panther: Wakanda Forever). Perhaps this all stems from the fact that it always seemed, in every viewing of Black Panther, like Killmonger didn’t need to be a villain. He isn’t a character who’s inherently evil, but rather one molded that way by his circumstances. But What If… seems to imply otherwise; this is a villain in any world. And something about that just feels off.
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