Warning: major plot spoilers for Black Panther below.
When it comes to the superhero movies of today, we've grown accustomed to villains with intimidating and menacing supernatural powers. But in Black Panther, Michael B. Jordan's Erik Killmonger is a departure. "You know, a lot of villains are, like, otherworldly — jumping out of the sky, an alien blowing up stuff," the actor told me over the phone. It's exactly one day before the film hits theaters, and excitement for Marvel's latest is absolutely at an all-time high. It's true, Erik Killmonger is technically the villain of the film, and he puts our heroes (and the entire country of Wakanda) in danger. But when you strip away the superhero suit that makes this film a Marvel film, Erik is just an American man who, prior to his arrival in Wakanda, is just an average human being.
"When you have somebody, an antagonist that you can relate to, somebody that you know, somebody that you've seen before, it makes it a little more empathetic."
Over the course of the movie, we witness Erik's heartbreaking backstory. We see how the cruelty of the world has turned his heart cold. We fade in on an Oakland neighborhood in 1992, where crime is lurking right over the heads of the neighborhood kids. Erik, who is 8 years old at the time, loses his father to an unthinkable act of violence and starts down a dark, angry, and destructive path that effectively turns him into the murderous Killmonger we see later in the film. Tragically, by the time we reach the epic final sequence, it's hard not to root for Erik's redemption. "When you have somebody, an antagonist that you can relate to, somebody that you know, somebody that you've seen before, it makes it a little more empathetic." While tapping into such a complex character, Jordan said it was "a lot darker than what I usually have to prepare for. Erik's a very lonely guy, so I spent a lot of time by myself. Just being in isolation, being in my head."
Closer to the end, the grown-up Erik (Jordan) reunites with his father, N'Jobu (Sterling K. Brown), in a dream sequence. In this moment, we see the pain lurking underneath all of his anger and malice. We can see what lies beneath the aspects of his character that make him Black Panther's villain. Erik is just a boy who lost his father, who felt abandoned, who had to find his own way in a world filled with hate. "Sterling's a phenomenal actor, so being able to go through that sequence and show the vulnerability of that 8-year-old boy, you know, I think that was intense. It was really emotional," Jordan told me. "It was definitely a break in [Erik's] armor. You know? Up until that point, you see Killmonger being very rough. He's passionate. But there's a reason why, and without that dream sequence, you don't really understand him completely. So, it all kind of made sense. That scene makes him make sense."
It's moments like this that really make Black Panther shine. Not just as an exceptional and important Marvel film, but as a statement about the way things are. "This moment in time, the way people have been connecting to this movie . . . it's become this thing that everybody's been taking ownership over," Jordan said. "And especially from the African-American community, it's something that's so important. Like you said, representation is key, and they finally have something that they can connect to, something that's speaking from their point of view."
Behind the scenes, there's been a uniquely personal aspect to the project as well, especially for Jordan. Black Panther is directed by Ryan Coogler, with whom Jordan is a frequent collaborator. They worked together on 2013's Fruitvale Station, 2015's Creed, and now Black Panther. "Our bond is extremely close. And it's very special to me, personally. We get each other . . . and he's one of my best friends. Imagine going to work every day with someone you really care about. The work doesn't really feel like work." Jordan's created work hasn't just yielded an incredible friendship; it's also part of Jordan's own personal draw to directing. "I've always wanted to direct, and I've always been included in the directing process, to some degree. You know, whether it's working with Ryan or other directors on set, I've always had the desire and want to direct."
For Jordan, specifically, Black Panther was so much more than a fantastic and challenging new role. Behind the scenes, he got the opportunity to slip into the director's chair through a serendipitous partnership with Brisk. When the company signed on to be the official drink sponsor for Marvel's latest exciting venture, an unlikely opportunity appeared. "You know, honestly, it was fate," Jordan said. "[Brisk] knew I have a production company, and they were interested in doing this Creator's Class, the future class of creators. I was able to direct and produce and create some content around that idea."
Jordan's directorial debut is called "Hidden Hustle." The actor-turned-director described it to me, saying it's "basically all the time that you put into a project, all the time that you put into building a character or a piece of work, or making a song, or doing anything before people actually see the finished result. And I wanted to kind of highlight that in a piece. So it all just kind of came together, and I took some time out to direct it and put my fingerprints on it."
"It's something that I don't think anybody could have ever foreseen. Every day is a new high. I can't even really explain it."
In some ways, the creative journey mapped in "Hidden Hustle" mirrors the process of bringing Black Panther to life. After all, Jordan himself stars in the spot, and he's clearly working on the physically demanding aspects of his role. All of these unique pieces fit together to create that explosive cultural moment that is Black Panther. The movie is breaking presale records, and it's got glowing reviews, a near-perfect Rotten Tomatoes score, and an empowering feminist storyline to back it up. But it's more than just another superhero movie with an incredible and diverse cast. The movie taps into the harrowing experience of being a person of color in present-day America, where superheroes don't swoop in and save the day.
Black Panther will break records and change the entertainment world forever, but it will be so much more than that. It's the perfect storm of something impossibly vital dropping at just the perfect moment. "I think it's important for all these reasons, and it's something that I don't think anybody could have ever foreseen. Every day is a new high. I can't even really explain it."