The insidious nature of how “Complex” Villains are written

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CW: Police, State, and Racial violence discussed and presented ahead.

I’ve always had at best a middling opinion of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Even before my big shift in my worldview the past few years, I generally found the nearly 30 movie juggernaut of the MCU to be largely uninventive, bland, and flat stylistically. My critiques back then mostly boiled down to aesthetics; the flat color grading, the unimaginative cinematography, the even more unimaginative film scores they had on average, how safe most of their storytelling decisions felt and oh yes, the quips. 

So. Many. Quips…

Also a big “Fuck you!” to Joss Whedon as long as we’re here…

But in phase 3, it felt a bit like maybe the MCU was finally getting bolder and a bit more daring. After so many movies, they kinda had to but it did feel like there was a shift in tone and directing. The movies started to be a little more out of the ordinary and unique in their style depending on the director and at times even went after heavier subjects and none more so than 2018’s “Black Panther.”

At the time, “Black Panther” was a tremendous box office and critical success. Director Ryan Coogler set out to make a superhero film that could not only be very much a part of the MCU franchise but also something he could call his own as you can definitely see his personal touch on much of the cinematography, style, and tone of the film. 

Seriously, quite a bit of this movie is unironically pretty as hell to look at and it has a lot to do with Coogler’s personal creative touch.

What “Black Panther” really did at the time though was have the MCU attack a real-world subject unlike the more general themes of family and fighting evil of the previous movies. Coogler is a black man of course, and directing a movie featuring one of comics greatest black heroes made it pretty important for him to discuss the ways black America was feeling at the time and few characters in the film embodied this more than Erik “Killmonger” played masterfully by Michael B. Jordan.

Killmonger has a very real gripe with the world. Though they never explicitly state what he has been through growing up, it’s pretty easy to understand where his rage probably comes from unless you are completely ignorant or just a plain ol’ racist. Though he never explicitly calls it white supremacy, it’s very clear that this is the target of his vendetta. Because of his relationship to T’Challa and Wakanda he calls out the country’s unwillingness to help those like him and their isolationist ways. He makes very clear and correct points about power and privilege and the responsibility of those who have it to act, and it makes him by far the most compelling character of the movie.

Not to mention the dude has killer theme music on top of it all.

Killmonger is one of many “complex” villains or perhaps anti-heroes that have sprung up in popular culture as of late. Bad guys are not so straight forward in major blockbusters anymore and often have real valid critiques of the world we live in. Audiences generally like villains to be like this though as it relates to real world conversations. It’s what makes them compelling and interesting and dare I say, relatable.

And that’s where things get insidious…

In my new understanding of the superhero genre and adjacent stories and franchises, I’ve realized there is something truly nefarious about the way characters like Killmonger are written but not in the way you might think. Despite having clearly a correct take about the nature of how corrupt our world is and how deeply evil the power structures are by the people who operate it, he is still ultimately not only framed as the villain but also framed as more deserving of being destroyed and defeated than the system he aims to depose. 

To rewind a little, to understand what I’m getting at, let’s talk about how ugly things got in the summer of 2020. After George Floyd was murdered by the Minneapolis Police department on May 25, 2020, it sparked a summers long streak of protests as many people, especially African Americans, finally, collectively said “enough!” The protests ranged from more peaceful demonstrations of solidarity to riots and looting that took place in major cities every week for most of the summer, but the demand was all the same “We’re tired of the bull shit and crimes committed by this country on people like us.”

The media perception was far less kind of the latter group, however. Heavy emphasis on broken windows and damaged store fronts littered the airways as conservative AND liberal pundits brow-beated and chastised the protestors for being “thugs” and “destroying their own communities.” Whatever one thinks about the ways some protestors chose to voice their complaints about the country they lived in, very little was being said about what started the riots in the first place; the violent murder of yet another black man at the hands of state. And he wasn’t even the only one to get killed by cops that summer too.

CW: Police violence.

The most liberal politicians said in support was “We understand your anger but you need to do things ‘the right way’” and that “right way” was doing what we’ve always been doing; voting. Voting in the very system that made all this possible. The system that literally already had a Democrat in power in both the city and state that killed George Floyd. Why does this sound all so familiar? Because stories like “Black Panther” very much reflect this same line of backwards, “pragmatic” morality.

After Killmonger correctly calls out the world for its evil he takes over Wakanda to violently usurp the white supremacist infrastructure, to which T’Challa, with the help of a CIA agent no less (lmao), sets out to stop him in the film’s climactic finale. The catharsis of the story is T’Challa does learn this lesson about the racist nature of the world from Killmonger. He actually becomes quite upset by the end of the movie at Wakanda for abandoning people like Killmonger and other African-blooded people. He does finally recognize how bad everything outside his privileged borders really is and that he has a responsibility to help. 

Now I think there is a good lesson to be learned about “with great power comes great responsibility” ala Spider-man here but what T’Challa does to make this happen echoes the same empty, pragmatism of the liberal politicians who observed the riots of 2020.

T’Challa not only tries to stop and eventually kill Killmonger but then opens up Wakanda’s borders to the very same world that is causing all kinds of harm to people who look like him across the planet. Unless Wakanda is sharing their technology with extensive rules and caveats of operation in place they are effectively just making the already powerful oppressors more powerful. What do you think a country like the US would do if such a country gave them essentially space-age material to play around with? What do you think the west and the countries of NATO would do with vibranium and the tech we see in Wakanda if such a thing and place existed? The racist oppressive power structures in place don’t actually learn anything even in the text of the story. There’s actually never a point where we see the oppressors turn over a new leaf or even act like they understand what they have done. You might say the first post-credit scene does with the admittedly eloquent speech T’Challa gives to the UN but he is at best giving them a stern finger wagging and not actually telling them why they are wrong. In fact he doesn’t. 

Looking back on this scene, the way CIA Agent Ross nods at the end of the speech feels REALLY fucking gross when you think about historical context

The funny thing about these shared universe films is we actually get to see how things changes from movie to movie/TV show and unsurprisingly nothing about society in any of the films that follow reflect what happens at the end of “Black Panther.” In fact, the plot set up of “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier” series three years later effectively shows they didn’t. You might chalk that up the limits of Extended Universe storytelling but it does in the end show that nothing changed.

They got Wakanda opened up without doing any of the work to earn it. With all that in mind, what reason is there to believe this was actually a good idea?

To kinda paraphrase Dr. Ian Malcolm here, T’Challa, buddy, you were so preoccupied with helping the rest of the world that you didn’t stop think whether you should…

The West has been involved in many of the worst atrocities across the planet since the age of colonialism to the modern era. The British Empire was responsible for famines and genocides in Ireland, India, Africa and many other places to name a few. I shouldn’t have to tell you America wiped out virtually the entire native population of North America but they also still oppress them today while dropping bombs in places like Somalia and the Middle East as you read this, killing millions upon millions of people over the past three decades, just to name a few. 

Even Canada owns much of Africa’s gold mines and controls much of the continent’s exports because of it, as the people of these countries get only a handful of the money earned back into their pockets. 

Canada is NOT in fact all that much better than the US actually…

The only way to possibly have a positive reading of how the UN changed at the end of the movie is if you think the actions I mention above were unintentionally harmful instead of deliberate.

In the context of the story, why in the world did T’Challa think this was a good idea after what he supposedly learned from Killmonger? The most direct action he does for African related people outside his kingdom is build a “Wakanda Outreach Center” in Oakland which frankly is on par with a number of other philanthropic organizations with middling returns on helping marginalized communities. Why did he decide to trade with the very governments that are causing his people the most harm? Does anyone watching this movie actually think receiving Wakanda tech magically turns all these capitalist countries into suddenly not evil exploitative nations anymore? Or that they would willingly bend the knee to Wakanda in the real world if the kingdom decided to play hardball with their tech?

Killmonger was right.

When I watched this movie the first time, I was blown away by it because it reflected my world view back in 2018. As a liberal at the time, I knew things were bad for African Americans and I understood that it needed to be changed. The movie gave me catharsis because I felt it had a good message to teach about racism and oppression.

I actually still like this scene quite a bit.

But what I’ve realized recently is the lesson I was learning wasn’t actually what I thought it was. I think most people who watch this movie and others like it think you’re probably supposed to relate to the hero. After all that’s supposed to be the “good guy.” But we don’t actually relate to the “good guy” because the purpose of the story is for the hero to learn a lesson from the villain who has a very real point about the world that we already understand. So, who are we really supposed to relate to in this story?

It’s actually the villain.

The villain in stories where this character has an objectively correct take about the world is actually supposed to be a stand-in for us. In fact, I’m very sure Coogler’s more direct comments about being African American are said through Killmonger here, NOT T’Challa. Whether he or other writers creating characters like this know it, these characters are avatars of the audience’s rage against society. They are supposed to be a voice for all our misgivings about the world we live in. They are relatable because they are telling us something we know is true while the hero remains laughably ignorant of it in the story’s first act.

So then, logically, who is the hero supposed to be a stand-in for? It’s actually the society the villain, ie: us, is raging against.

The reason the heroes in stories like this tend to be ignorant of how bad things really are is because that’s what society/these governments are, or at least how we view them. We see society as an oppressive but ignorant mass that needs to understand how we are feeling and the villains in this story teach this lesson to the hero who represent/defend that same oppressive system. That’s where the catharsis of these stories actually come from. We want to be heard, we want people to know why we are so angry, we want them to change, and that’s why when people talked about this movie having this positive message back in 2018, deep down we were actually hoping the people we were most angry with (the politicians, the capitalists, the cops) saw it so that maybe, like T’Challa they learned this lesson too.

Deep down, we know what this scene is really trying to convey and that’s seeing our hero tell the world to change instead of violently doing so ourselves. *in Plinkett voice* you might not have noticed it but your brain did…

But evil doesn’t function like that in the real world. In fact, all the worst people on the internet, the Ben Shapiros, the Jordan Petersons, and plenty of right wing politicians all hated it because of course, they would. They aren’t this fictional UN fantasy council that starts to humanize the people they oppress once they get their hands on Wakanda tech. They are people who will look at this and laugh while calling it “woke nonsense” cause that’s exactly who they are.

They’re Nazis AND cowards, Donny…

But the hero functions in one very evil way in this film and stories like this and that is to send a message to those who may or may not realize they are identifying with the villain.

Though the hero eventually identifies, relates to, and begins to understand the villain’s world view there is still the ultimate belief that the villain is doing it the wrong way. As T’Challa and Killmonger duke it out in the finale, T’Challa chastises his cousin for “becoming one of them.” Perhaps that is true, as in the text of the script Killmonger does look to start an invasion of the rest of the world through Wakanda’s military to start an “Empire.” But notice that while T’Challa has made this observation of who Killmonger is he is not choosing to stop those same power structures the same way. Killmonger’s actions are framed as worse somehow than what those oppressive systems with infinitely more blood on their hands are doing. If Killmonger is becoming like the tyrants he is trying to stop, why is he deserving of destruction/imprisonment but not them? Why is he uniquely more worthy of punishment than they are? By this point in the story he hasn’t actually violently overthrown anyone but the countries he aims to depose have already done countless horrible atrocities by comparison INCLUDING violently overthrowing other countries.

Who gets to be violent? Who gets to continue living?

Only one of these two gets to still exist and only one of them gets to use the gifts of Wakanda in the end…

The cops in this murder may have been sent to jail but how often does that happen? Who dies? Who lives? Who gets to keep doing what they are doing and who perishes by the hands of the state?

In this way, if we understand that T’Challa represents society then logically what this part of the story is really saying is “You’re allowed to be angry but if you’re angry in a way that aims to radically change anything then this is what will happen to you.” Thus “Black Panther” isn’t actually a radical movie at all in the superhero genre. In fact, it shows that this is very much, in the end, a defense of the status quo. It makes a valid and correct take about the world but ultimately tells the audience “those things you hate about the system are going to still be there for the most part and you still need to behave or else…”

Up until 2020, I would describe myself as a progressive liberal with perhaps some burgeoning radical takes on the world I lived in but ultimately still very much in support of it as a whole. I think it’s what allowed me to really like “Black Panther” back in 2018 and what it stood for because it reflected a more positive, uplifting world view I had. But after the George Floyd protests and everything else that took place in 2020, seeing how our government reacted to what I felt was very valid rage, regardless of how messy it got, made me realize that this tisk-tisking by pundits and politicians were truly aimed to steer us away from more radical thoughts of change. 

It was to get us back in line and force us to behave. 

Hell with the way the government has responded to COVID and the “great resignation” of 2021 there has been an effort to get us “back to work” too and accept the life-draining and horrific circumstances of our jobs instead of demanding real change and better working conditions and compensation. 

They are trying to put out collective action and revolutionary fires as we speak.

This motherfucker went to space and there are still people who think those demanding a living wage are the ones who are “spoiled”…

These movies exist to do the same thing. They aim to defuse the more radical beliefs of the audience through our actual avatar in the villain to pretend like they, the hero, are learning a lesson while also, more subliminaly, telling us what will happen if we choose to take matters into our own hands.

It might feel lately like there has been some deconstructing of the superhero genre going on with a broad attempt by studios and their writers to bring this modern conversation into pop culture. Villains can’t just be plain evil anymore, they need to be more complex and with a moral gray to them and thus often have relatable and correct views about the world. In “Spider-man: Homecoming” The Vulture is rightfully pissed that Stark Industries and the government robbed him of his business and his livelihood in the NYC battle aftermath. Even though this event turns him into a super villain, no soul searching is done at the end of the movie by our heroes to understand the ramifications of those actions. To jump to the DCEU for a minute, in “Wonder Woman 1984″ the villain rightly sees the world as deeply unfair and in need of change and Diana (a literal immortal super human) ends the film by basically saying “it’s fine the way it is, what are you talking about?” And most recently in the latest reboot of Batman, The Riddler correctly identifies top to bottom corruption in his city between government officials, the cops, and the crime bosses but Batman doesn’t dispose of anyone outside the latter. Gotham is still very much run by the same system that enabled all that to happen by the end of the movie. We even get a very deliberate “Not all cops” moment in the film’s third act that felt deeply gratuitous and manipulative.

As mentioned earlier, I think this YouTuber has gone through a similar change of heart recently with this series, just as I did…

These movies aren’t actually deconstructing anything. They aren’t actually attempting to say anything radical about the world we live in or even the genre that speaks about it. They are basically telling us “We see you, we hear you, we feel you” in the same way Democratic politicians placate their base while talking out of both sides of their mouths.

There’s a long history of Hollywood’s involvement with the Pentagon that should give you pause enough when you see movies like this. People might point to films such as “Black Panther” as examples of our supposedly free society making room for valid critiques of it but it really isn’t the case at all. These movies where the villain is objectively right really serves to halt more radical thoughts in the audience whether we realize it or not. It’s the same reason they’ve gotten many of us to believe the furthest left we can go is someone like Alexandria Ocasio Cortez or Bernie Fucking Sanders in this country. They are gatekeepers, whether they know it or not, to keep us from exploring further when our beliefs begin to no longer align with the mainstream neoliberal doctrine of nonviolence. 

Perhaps I’m getting a bit tin-foil hatty for some of you right now (thank you for reading this far regardless haha…) but the point still stands that there is something deeply insidious about the ways “complex” villains are written in films such as these. There’s always a moment where these villains do something taboo or dastardly to effectively disconnect us from what they have to say just as they start to make too much sense. In “Black Panther” it was Killmonger killing his girlfriend randomly to get into Wakanda. In “The Falcon and The Winter Solider,” it was blowing up a building full of people to “send a message.” Whether one takes issue with the villains here or not, it is very much meant to frame those with these radical beliefs for change as “too radical” and push the audience back toward the hero(s), even when the systems they rail against are far more violent. And when you remember the Pentagon helps make most of these movies it feels more and more like a deliberate decision on their behalf…

And just a reminder that radical revolution will never be about peacefully demonstrating or voting in a corrupt system that aims to marginalize you…

If the villain has an objectively good point about the world we live in then we need to observe what happens to them in the text of the story. Do they actually get what they want? How do they get it? And how are they treated by the hero of the story? And how does the hero take what he learns from the villain and applies it to fixing things?

If the end result resembles anything like what we already see in our world, then the story isn’t about radical change or real critiques about society. 

It’s about upholding the status quo.

And if the last couple years hasn’t shown you already, the status quo isn’t working anymore and it’s time to tell our “heroes” what we really think about it…

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