The Villian Seen as a Hero – Review of Marvel’s “What If… Killmonger Saved Tony Stark?”

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In a sharp contrast to the previous episode of Marvel’s What If…, this week’s episode focuses on perhaps my favorite villain from the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Erik Stevens aka Killmonger. It’s been a widely distributed opinion (one I agree with) that the first two phases of the Marvel Cinematic Universe did not have the best villains (mainly one-note bad guys, save for The Red Skull and Loki). The introduction of Killmonger in Black Panther brought an antagonist to the MCU that had deeply understandable motives, even if his methods were completely deplorable. In this episode, we see what could have happened if one major event didn’t occur due to Killmonger’s intervention.

Spoilers ahead, obviously, so don’t read if you haven’t watched the episode.

Erik Stevens, aka Killmonger. Source

The point of divergence in this version of events is that Tony Stark doesn’t get injured and captured at the beginning of Iron Man in Afghanistan. Without his injury and capture, Tony never goes through the ordeal that forges him into Iron Man, never becomes the hero that saves New York, or the man who sacrifices himself to destroy Thanos and his armies. Essentially, the entire MCU timeline that we’ve known for the last thirteen years is gone when Killmonger saves Tony from the Ten Rings. By saving him and exposing Obadiah Stane as the force behind the attack on Tony, Killmonger ingratiates himself into Stark’s inner circle, which draws the suspicions of Pepper Potts (always the more level-headed of the pair).

Michael B. Jordan has proven before in Love, Death and Robots, as well as his work in gen:LOCK and Justice League: The Flashpoint Paradox, that he has a knack for voice acting. That shines through here in this episode, where we get even more time to spend with Erik Stevens. Killmonger is a mercurial villain, a chessmaster, and he systematically moves the pieces into place to get the end result he is looking for. Rather than attempting to undermine T’Challa like he did in Black Panther, Killmonger uses his new-found access to Tony Stark to create unmanned drones powered by the JARVIS AI. When the pair encounter an issue with the power requirements, Killmonger suggests using Vibranium and just the person to get it from, Ulysses Klaue. This sets up a moment where Killmonger is able to take out both T’Challa (who shows up to spoil the sale of Klaue’s stolen Vibranium) and Rhodey (who was sent by Stark to facilitate the deal). When Tony finds out what Stevens did, he also ends up on the receiving end of a death sentence by Killmonger, who uses a Wakandan spear to frame the African nation.

All of this leads to Killmonger still murdering Klaue to get in the good graces of King T’Chaka (who is spared in this timeline since the events of the regular MCU don’t occur) and initiated a false flag operation to “save” Wakanda. Everything falls into place by the end of the episode, with Killmonger being named the heir to the throne and given the mantle of Black Panther. Erik is able to manipulate both the Wakandan and U.S. governments into direct conflict, profiting off the potential war to get himself into a position where he can take over Wakanda and initiate his uprising that he was attempting to perform in Black Panther.

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The character moments that stood out to me in this episode were the two big conversations Killmonger has with Tony and T’Challa. Tony’s inability to see Killmonger’s true motives fits, mainly because the Tony Stark who existed before his attack in Afghanistan didn’t think too far ahead or really question the people around him. Killmonger’s statement that Tony didn’t see the difference between the two of them stands out because it is both accurate and a reflection of how far Killmonger is willing to go to distance himself from other people. When Killmonger takes the Heart-Shaped Herb to gain the powers of Black Panther, he is met on the other side not by his father but by the recently-murdered T’Challa. The fallen prince of Wakanda calls out his cousin on wanting to visit more suffering on the world, which Killmonger replies won’t be the case because he has the power he needs to end the suffering of his African brothers and sisters. T’Challa reminds Killmonger that he did not earn this power, he stole it through deceitfulness and there is always a price to be paid when power is acquired in such ways.

Definitely one of the more bittersweet episodes of What If… to this point, I enjoyed episode six quite a bit. The series has had a few off moments over the course of the first season (namely the Avengers episode where Hank Pym was the villain) but overall, I have to say I’ve been enjoying the series. There are only three episodes left in the first season and I’m intrigued to see what new possible timelines are introduced as the series comes to a close.

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