From Hannibal Lecter eating the rude across the northeastern United States to Loki’s attempts to subjugate the human race and Kylo Ren’s patricide and misogyny, fandom just loves to look at villains who have committed atrocities and decide that they’re in fact complex characters who just need a redemption arc to set them on the right track (because they have a good reason for what they did/the heroes of the series are in fact the real villain) …
But only if they’re white dudes.
For a villain played by any other kind of performer, fandom shuts down any attempts at redemption arcs or nuanced readings or even super stanning, calling the characters problematic and dredging up their bad behavior in a way that they just don’t do for white male villains.
White male villains are never responsible for their actions.
They’re never expected to do better.
It’s not surprising considering that fandom has some serious double standards when it comes to villains.
I mean, I’ve spent close to two years watching the Star Wars fandom going out of their way to claim that everyone but Kylo Ren is responsible for his turn to evil. There are currently almost eighteen thousand stories in the Hannibal (TV) category on Archive of Our Own – many of which are focused on shipping. Hydra Trash Party – a subset of the Marvel Cinematic Universe fandom that creates dark fancontent where Hydra members do all kinds of messed up shit to Captain America, Bucky, or Sam Wilson – is a thing.
Fandom is literally all about supporting villains and making excuses for their actions. Or heck, rewriting them entirely so that they can consume content without being fussed at. But again, only if they’re white guys.
We’re constantly told that unrepentant, unredeemable, and well… unlikeable villains like Armitage Hux and Kylo Ren, are more interesting than characters of color in their own franchises. Folks made T’challa’s decision not to kill Zemo all about Zemo and constantly fantasized about T’challa doing emotional labor for the man who killed his father – part and parcel of shipping them – post Civil War.
Constantly in fandom spaces, white male villains are turned into fandom darlings. They’re treated like poor babies that aren’t responsible for the atrocities that they commit. They’re given leeway, redemption arcs, and a shield formation so tight that it would make a Roman Legion jealous.
But then comes Michael B. Jordan’s Erik Killmonger and suddenly a not insignificant portion of fandom has decided that that vilains are uniformly evil and can never be redeemed or ethically stanned. Suddenly, liking a villain isn’t seen as empowering or awesome for fans’ sexuality.
That’s not hypocritical and the timing certainly isn’t super suspicious at all…
For seven years, fandom has bent over backwards to excuse Loki’s attempted genocide of the Frost Giants – for nothing more than existing, essentially. For seven years, I’ve watched as intense Loki fans went out of their way to craft a backstory for the character that made excuses for the fact that he was moments away from killing all of the Frost Giants as well as his attempted takeover/destruction of the humans in Manhattan.
For two years, the Star Wars fandom has made shoving redemption arcs at Kylo Ren – a character who doesn’t deserve or want one – their thing. Kylo Ren is constantly portrayed as the secret protagonist of the current trilogy, a character whose violence is always glossed over because he just can’t help himself.
I’ve watched the same fandom do the same thing for Armitage Hux, a character who is literally and obviously a Nazi parallel. All while writing off the Black male hero of the film as comedic relief or as a selfish figure who can’t stop lying – and is clearly more awful than any of the film’s actual (but totally misunderstood) villains because they think he’s obsessive and creepy towards his own best friend.
I’ve even seen sympathetic takes on Ulysses Klaue, a character who unashamedly calls Black people “savages” and is literally colonization with legs in Black Panther. (He’s a white guy who lives in South Africa, who thinks that Black people are inferior and too unintelligent to use their own resources properly but go off, I guess.)
I’m not saying that folks have to stan Erik Killmonger.
I mean, I don’t even know that I want to.
But I’m incredibly aware of the double standard in the way that he’s been treated and how white villains – including one from his own film – are treated better than he ever will be. Black characters are vilified on a regular basis, even if they’re not villains. They’re seen as suspicious, subject to pseudo-academic thinkpieces about how they’re actually selfish or cowardly, and never given anywhere near the same room to be complex and flawed that white villains are.
But Black villains, when they do show up, are treated even worse.
Hours after Black Panther came out folks were on some shit about Killmonger.
They wrote him off for his politics, insulted people who talked about identifying with him, and just generally came out of nowhere in order to flip the script and act as though Black people were wrong for finding something to like about Killmonger.
Most of these people weren’t Black.
I don’t know if that’s why they don’t get what makes him a complex and sympathetic villain.
I do know that many people who don’t get Killmonger’s appeal do get why Magneto is so damn angry (and why his idea of resistance and revolution for his fellow mutants is a violent one) or who have decided that Hux’s (largely made up) traumatic backstory excuses his complicity in wiping out the Republic (a type of genocide) or that uncritically stan Hannibal Lecter despite the fact that he’s emotionally manipulative and eats people.
Many of the white male villains that fandom goes wild for are incredibly unsympathetic. Like I’ve said: they’re unlikeable. They’re assholes. They sometimes eat people or commit genocides. Misogyny is a feature of many of these popular villains’ backstory as is outright violence against women. Many of these villains are imperialists or fascists.
But fandom still rushes to gently cradle them in a way that they haven’t done for Killmonger, a character who might not be the greatest guy, but happens to be one of the best and most complex villains in the MCU so far. (Yes, even more complex than my girl Mariah Dillard from Luke Cage.)
There are criticisms to be had of the character considering how Killmonger is basically an agent of US imperialism who disrespects the hell out of women, and goes after Shuri for NO reason in the film’s second biggest fight scene.
However, he’s also a character who exemplifies the struggles that many Black people across the diaspora have about the violence that we face in the countries that we live in and how “returning home” to Africa is just… unlikely to happen in a way that will end well for us. He’s a character whose just and valid anger at the continuing violence against Black people across the globe is twisted up by the fact that his ideas of Black Liberation involve becoming “just as bad” as the colonizers and oppressors.
He wants to see Wakanda change and for Black people across the diaspora to get power that’s been denied to them for centuries.
Unfortunately, he goes about it entirely the wrong way. Sending weapons instead of actual aid is his actual only plan and like… actually awful.
Killmonger’s toxic masculinity and imperialist dreams make him hard to love, but he’s no more terrible than many of the villains that fandom has always gone gaga over.
In fact, his complex, moving, and canon backstory coupled with the fact that his uncle made him an orphan and abandoned him in a country that literally hates Black people make him a character that’s even more compelling than many of fandom’s favorite white villains.
Oh, and he manages to get some of the best and snarkiest lines in the film (second to my girl, Shuri, of course).
Michael B. Jordan managed to make Killmonger into a villain that you cried for and laughed with, even when you were also ready to fight him for mistreating all of the characters I loved – and also for shooting his own girlfriend like… that was unnecessary. He portrayed Killmonger as a character that you could sympathize with and want to see have a different ending because he was actually treated unfairly by the people around him.
While I know that there have been some people framing Killmonger as the only figure in the film fighting for Black liberation and comparing him to Harriet Tubman (which… is dead wrong in a film that literally has a scene where Lupita Nyong’o’s Nakia fights to save kidnapped girls from enslavement), they are not the majority.
You don’t have Killmonger stans on the same level as Loki and Kylo Ren stans, writing thinkpieces about how because of his past, the violence that he commits as something he’s not responsible for.
You don’t have outlets like The Mary Sue hosting pieces about how T’challa is the real villain of the film for his complicity in Killmonger’s arc (the way they did about Kylo Ren after The Last Jedi).
I have yet to see Black people on tumblr (in the same transformative spaces that have made defending fictional white murderers an art) woobify Killmonger to the extent that fandom has continued to woobify white villains.
I follow many popular blogs run by Black folks in the MCU and Star Wars fandom and they’ve all been criticizing his actions towards women, analyzing his politics and where his Black Liberation stance comes from… all the while thirsting after him, talking about what he represents for them, and trying to figure out ways to write him a true redemption arc that fixes the problems present in the character rather than brushing them off or romanticizing them.
But I’ve seen a bunch of tweets and tumblr posts outright shaming Killmonger fans for… not even doing a third of what die-hard Kylo Ren and Loki stans have done over the past couple of years.
Like folks are out here acting like every Black person that’s seen Black Panther is uncritically supporting everything that Killmonger represented – including his casual misogyny and violence towards women and the whole thing where he immediately sees arming Black people as the only path to Black Liberation.
No exceptions. No nuance.
Honestly, I have to wonder why fandom won’t ever let Black people have anything of our own: even a complex villain that speaks to our very souls.