On Erik Stevens

I am breaking my Lenten silence because (a) I am a poor excuse for a Christian and (b) I can’t stop thinking about Black Panther. The movie had some flaws — chief among them, I think, the exceptionally poor CGI, which is really unforgivable in a film that depends so much on CGI — but the story is the strongest, most coherent, and most meaningful one of any film in the MCU.

But you know what could have made it even better?

Let’s consider Erik Killmonger for a moment: a man whose justifiable rage at injustice (against him and against the world’s black people) has turned him into a psychopath. We see him kill several people he doesn’t have to kill, and Lord knows how many more of those there are in his past. He is, as T’Challa says, a monster (and, as T’Challa also says, one of Wakanda’s own making). But what if he weren’t a monster?

Imagine an Erik Stevens with all of the same warrior’s skills and commitment to justice who channels his rage into strategy. Who understands the fear of the ruling families of Wakanda and seeks to win them, and the people as a whole, over to his side. Who has a dream, a dream of liberation for black people around the world, and of Wakanda as the agent of that liberation — and who can powerfully and passionately articulate that dream.

He’s never going to win over Shuri, of course. But while she may be the only supergenius, she’s not the only brilliant scientist/technologist in Wakanda. Others might well rally to King N’Jadaka, seeing his plan as one that could make them famous and influential — could make them, literally, world-changers. The new King would also have the Dora Milaje on his side — something even Killmonger manages, before he throws that boon away — which would be a powerful visual manifestation of his kingship.

What then? Could T’Challa hope to reclaim his throne when such a king has claimed it, and, according to the laws of Wakanda, rightfully claimed it? Would he not go down in Wakanda’s history as the weak son of a weak king, capable of no more than scrabbling to preserve Wakanda’s secret wealth, lacking compassion for the world’s oppressed black peoples, lacking the vision to bring Wakanda to its proper place on the world stage, as a king among nations?

That probably wouldn’t be good for the MCU franchise, of course (though I can imagine some interesting possibilities). But maybe T’Challa as tragic hero, destroyed by Nemesis, would be the best T’Challa of all.