Bryan Singer’s 2000 X-Men movie marks the beginning of the modern era of superhero blockbusters. But the film doesn’t open with the titular team. The first scene depicts a young Erik Lehnsherr losing his parents at Auschwitz, showing the pain and firsthand experience with the very worst of humanity that led him to become Magneto, the supervillain who has most shaped the X-Men universe. Other villains come and go, but Magneto helped found the X-Men, and as he alternately works alongside or against them, his presence and his decisions are key to defining who they are and what they fight for.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe has had some worthy villains, like Loki (played by Tom Hiddleston) and Vulture (Michael Keaton), but until now, it hasn’t had one that could compete with Magneto’s ability to instill fear and sympathy at the same time. It’s no coincidence that Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther also opens with a defining childhood moment for its villain, young Erik Stevens. When his father tells him the story of Wakanda, it sounds like a fairy tale to a boy growing up in Oakland. Erik has been denied the life of Wakandan safety and luxury that should rightly be his. He’s condemned to live without his father in a world of violence, drugs, and racial oppression. He comes to advocate for Wakanda to become a colonial power the way Magneto often pushes for genocide against non-mutants. Both men have learned from the examples of their oppressors, and seek to replicate them in ways that would put their own people on top.
What makes both villains so compelling is the righteous power of their arguments. Until now, the MCU’s villains have been largely unsympathetic, from Iron Man’s Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges), who is driven by petty greed, all the way to Thor: Ragnarok’s Hela (Cate Blanchett) who is fueled by violent megalomania. Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) and Magneto (played in different iterations of the films by Ian McKellen and Michael Fassbender) rightly seek to protect their people from injustice. The X-Men franchise has shown over and over that Magneto isn’t wrong about the threat homo sapiens present to homo superior, as mutants face threats of extinction from psychic assault, a weaponized cure, the Sentinels program, and, most bizarrely and successfully, soft drinks. Likewise, Black Panther doesn’t shy away from depicting how people of African descent have been treated for centuries, from slavery to the assassination of civil rights leaders to racial profiling. Both Killmonger and his father N’Jobu (Sterling K. Brown) advocate an extreme and murderous response, but Wakanda’s isolation from the world, and its refusal to engage with oppression and poverty, are equally unforgivable.
In both Black Panther and the X-Men films, the heroes — Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart / James McAvoy) and T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) — have to confront enemies that are dark mirrors of themselves, the people they might have been, had life just been a bit crueler. That point is particularly driven home in the poignant visions both T’Challa and Killmonger experience as part of the ritual to gain the power of the Black Panther. Both men lost their fathers to violence, but T’Challa faces King T’Chaka as a strong man who has been well prepared for this loss and the responsibility that comes with it. His vision carries some sadness, but the dominant emotion is pride. Killmonger confronts N’Jobu as a scared child who is left stunted by trauma. N’Jobu has been avenged, he has an heir to his quest to help create a violent resistance to white oppression, and yet it’s clear that what he feels most is regret.
Both Magneto and Killmonger also stand out because they’re presented not just alongside the heroes, but alongside other villains. Magneto only turns to genocide after William Stryker attempts it in X2. He agrees with Sebastian Shaw that conflict between mutants and humans is inevitable, but still foils his plans to start a nuclear war in X-Men: First Class. Magneto can work with the X-Men to stop other villains because his views aren’t so extreme that they leave no common ground. Likewise, Killmonger is contrasted against both Ulysses Klaue and M’Baku. Klaue feels like an acknowledgment of the MCU’s usual villain problem. He’s defined by a mix of snark and greed that would make him feel at home in the Iron Man franchise. He assumes he’s in control, and he treats Killmonger as a hired thug. Their power dynamic is racially tinged, but Killmonger clearly cultivates it by playing to Klaue’s expectations, adopting a gangster persona that he quickly drops when his true goals are in sight. Likewise, M’Baku and Killmonger both challenge T’Challa to a fight to the death for leadership, but one is gracious in defeat, while the other is ruthless in victory. M’Baku is a feint for comic book fans who recognize the name of Black Panther’s enemy, Man-Ape. But in this film, he’s not a villain, just a man who shows that power can be tested and accepted mercifully.
Having villains who can put forth more than straw-man arguments strengthens both franchises’ heroes by forcing them to not only fight evil, but to find a better way to do good. Again, Black Panther actually exceeds X-Men’s example by having Killmonger help change T’Challa’s mind. Xavier starts feeling that humans and mutants should be able to live in peace, and that view never really changes. T’Challa believes his duty is to his country, and he abandons responsibility for the rest of the people of Africa until he’s confronted with the price his family paid to maintain that isolation. Suffering leads Killmonger and Magneto to adopt their oppressors’ paradigms, attempting to flip the power structure to put themselves on top. Whether it’s uniting persecuted mutants or appealing to Wakanda’s more vengeful elements, they only fan the flames of tribal divisions, which the heroes must rise above. “More connects us than separates us,” T’Challa says near the end of Black Panther, repudiating Killmonger’s conclusion even as he takes action to solve the wrongs that motivated his cousin.
Magneto is such a compelling, memorable villain that the X-Men producers keep bringing him back, at this point in six films. When the franchise rebooted with First Class, he again gets the first scene, solidifying his place as perhaps the series’ most important character. So have Black Panther writers Ryan Coogler and Joe Robert Cole failed the MCU by killing off its best villain to date? The MCU already has a recurring villain in Loki, yet another villain who opens a hero’s movie. (His origin story is the first thing shown in Thor.) Like Magneto, his kinship with Thor (Chris Hemsworth) makes him capable of working alongside the hero to deal with greater threats. But Thor is actually the one who challenges Loki to grow as a person by overcoming the feelings of jealousy and abandonment that drive his actions. After Thor: Ragnarok, Loki seems to be leaning heavily toward anti-heroism, leaving the MCU in need of a worthy full-bore antagonist to fill his role.
It’s unlikely that Thanos can, no matter how often MCU movies tease his eventual arrival in the Infinity War movies. Magneto and Killmonger are compelling because they have deeply relatable motivations, but it’s going to be much harder to humanize Thanos’ desire to collect a bunch of cosmic McGuffins and rule the galaxy. But maybe Thanos will have some help carrying Avengers: Infinity War. In his last scene with Killmonger, T’Challa offers to heal his cousin’s wound, but Killmonger says he wants to die and be buried at sea. Considering how much Black Panther focuses on death, burial, and the importance of public ritual, it’s conspicuous and noticeable that the audience never sees that wish carried out. A portion of Infinity War will take place in Wakanda, which presents an incredible opportunity to challenge Killmonger’s beliefs by presenting him with the choice of whether to work with Thanos or fight against him: whether to be like Magneto in X2 or in X-Men: Apocalypse. Dramatic character death is rarely final in the world of superhero comics, and hopefully Killmonger’s isn’t final either. Otherwise, the MCU might spend another 13 years looking for its next truly great villain.