Written by David Holland
The MCU has what is sometimes referred to as a “villain problem”. When people say that, what they usually mean is that a lot of MCU villains are poorly developed, flat, and not very sympathetic. Malekith is probably the most egregious example, but you could include Kaecilius or Whiplash. But sometimes the MCU absolutely nails a villain. That is definitely the case in Black Panther. Killmonger is deeply troubled and carries a traumatized past. His plan was terrifying, but sympathetic too. So it only makes sense that they would bring one of the MCU’s most fascinating villains back for a trip through the multiverse.
What if Killmonger saved Tony Stark? The Watcher reminds us at the start of the episode that all of the good Tony did, from joining the Avengers to Snapping Thanos’ army out of existence, he only did because of the life change he experienced as a captive of the Ten Rings. In this universe, however, Stark never went through it, never escaped, and never became Iron Man because Erik Stevens, aka Killmonger, rescued him from the Ten Rings ambush. Upon his return to the States, Stark brings Erik into Stark Industries, gleefully watches as Erik exposes Obadiah Stane’s role in his near-assassination, and continues letting Killmonger deeper into his inner circle. Together they create drones capable of making human soldiers obsolete. Tony Stark quickly dismisses the idea of miniaturizing an arc reactor to power the drones and the pair decide to use vibranium. That means dealing with Ulysses Klaue over the objections of Pepper Potts. During the meet, Killmonger double crosses and kills James Rhodes and even kills the Black Panther. He manipulates the evidence to make it appear that Rhodey killed T’Challa, creating an international incident. When confronted by Tony Stark with evidence of his betrayal, Killmonger kills Stark too, using a vibranium spear in order to pin Stark’s death on Wakanda. Good thing the United States never overreacts to international incidents.
Killmonger continues manipulating both sides. He encourages the US to attack Wakanda with drones, but goes to Wakanda and tells them how to deactivate them. When the drones mysteriously reactivate (after Killmonger presses a button), he leads the Wakandan army into battle against them. After their victory, King T’Chaka gives Killmonger the heart-shaped herb and makes him the next Black Panther, while young Shuri visits Pepper Potts and the two conspire to take on a newly empowered Erik Killmonger.
There’s not much more to say than what I said in the introduction. I think Killmonger is one of the MCU’s best villains. He is patient, letting the US military train him into a deadly assassin. He is also brilliant. In “Black Panther” we watched him string everyone along, manipulating events almost perfectly. In this episode we see that same patience and brilliance on display again. When opportunity knocked in the form of a billionaire playboy in distress, Killmonger moved up his timeline. He played Stark like a very expensive fiddle, and then killed him when he was no longer useful. The best part about “What If…” is that we don’t need an answer about exactly how Killmonger’s story ends in this universe. Like many of the other episodes, we only get a snapshot of the story, but that’s enough. We end with a little bit of hope and a reminder that if things had gone just a little bit differently, Wakanda’s story would have changed dramatically.
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