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The MCU’s list of excellent villains is not as long as it should be, but there’s no question that Erik ‘Killmonger’ Stevens belongs on it. As played by the ever-charismatic Michael B. Jordan in Black Panther, it’s a character whose ultimate goal – liberating Black people all over the world – is as righteous as they come. But while his endgame is pure, his means are not. This is further underlined in What If… Killmonger rescued Tony Stark?, an episode that reinforces why Killmonger is such a compelling baddie.
To do that, What If…’s sixth chapter goes all the way back to the MCU’s beginning to reenact the opening of Iron Man. Except this time, instead of a Stark Industries missile blowing up in Tony’s face — an event that puts him on the path to becoming Earth’s mightiest hero — Killmonger intervenes and saves him. The two men form a fast friendship, but it’s all part of a long con Erik has hatched to gain entry into Wakanda.
Despite once again feeling like it could have used a few more minutes, the patience this episode shows in how it reveals the different pieces of Killmonger’s plan is to our lead character’s benefit. From the moment of hesitancy Erik initially has when Stark wants to make him COO, to making mechs with Tony that he knew wouldn’t work without vibranium to power them, this chapter emphasises that Killmonger is a formidable villain because of his cunning and smarts as well as his skill in combat.
There are a few shocks and surprises along the way too. Killmonger’s plan eventually leads to Ulysses Klaue (a returning Andy Serkis) and a cache of stolen vibranium that he needs to power his mechs. It has also caught the attention of Black Panther, who gets a superbly animated action sequence that showcases his impressive skillset.
But before he can tell Rhodey (Don Cheadle) what’s what, Killmonger ambushes them both and kills them. His final words to Tony’s military friend are particularly pointed: “Why wear the uniform of your own oppressors? Fight for them? Die for them?”
It’s here that Killmonger’s malice begins to shine through, and Jordan’s vocal performance is equal to the task. With that said, the murder of the two most prominent Black heroes in the MCU within seconds of each other was a lot, and it underlined just how few of them there are.
Killmonger’s murder spree doesn’t stop there. Thanks to Jarvis’ all-seeing digital eyes, Tony is wise to Erik’s deceptions. But his attempt at getting justice for Rhodey through one of Killmonger’s vibranium powered mechs ends with a spear in his chest. Later, Erik disposes of Klaue once he’s used him to discover Wakanda’s location. When it comes to fulfilling his single-minded goal, Killmonger spares no one.
It all leads to the episode’s high point, as Killmonger — who has alerted the Wakandans to the incoming threat from the Americans, who believe that Black Panther killed Rhodey — leads Wakanda’s finest into battle against his mechs. There are some really great visuals here — one light from a mech soon becoming hundreds of bots is beautifully animated — but the standout is Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett) in battle with her Dora Milaje. It’s an awesome sight to behold, and it makes me hopeful that she’ll get to throw down in next year’s highly anticipated Black Panther: Wakanda Forever.
My second favourite moment in this episode comes in a beautiful sequence on the Ancestral Plane between T’Challa and Killmonger, who has been given the powers of the Heart-Shaped herb that will enable him to become the next Black Panther. Boseman and Jordan were good friends in real life, and that lends the scene an additional emotional charge.
Watch the mid-season trailer for What If...
If it wasn’t already clear that we’d be returning to some of these realities somewhere down the line, the recently released mid-season trailer has erased all doubt. Further intrigue with the set of characters we follow in this episode comes in the final moments, as Shuri — being the genius that she is — uncovers the truth behind Killmonger’s actions and shares them with Pepper. What this means for Killmonger and this reality is anyone’s guess. I’m excited to find out.
Loved the nod to Jordan’s love of anime that inspired the mech’s design.
What If… has generally done a pretty good job with the actors they’ve chosen to fill in for MCU alumni who aren’t reprising their roles, and Ozioma Akagha’s Shuri is another great example of this.
Tony Stark has now died in 4 of the 6 episodes of What If… so far. Give the (Iron) man a break already!