What If Tried to Make Black Panther’s Killmonger Tony Stark’s New Black Friend™

What If Tried to Make Black Panther’s Killmonger Tony Stark’s New Black Friend™
Screenshot: Disney+/Marvel

While the Sacred Timeline’s Erik Killmonger may be dead, a variant is alive and kicking in the latest episode of Disney+ and Marvel’s animated What If series. Michael B. Jordan reprises his role as the prodigal Wakandan son in “What If… Killmonger Rescued Tony Stark?”, a story that condenses and remixes the beats from the live-action Black Panther film.

Black Panther’s Killmonger did a number of unconscionable, morally corrupt things in his pursuit of power and exacting revenge upon the world for systemically brutalizing Africa and its diaspora over the course of human history. But by the end of Ryan Coogler’s 2018 film, the charismatic villain had made more than enough points to make you understand where he was coming from and sympathise with his plight. The question is, would the latest What If episode be able to do the same with its limited runtime?

Compared to What If’s previous episodes, the cast of episode six does a markedly better job of making the show’s characters feel like living, breathing people rather than cel-shaded models of characters regurgitating remixed lines from movies you’ve seen before. Tonally, the episode feels much calmer than Marvel’s live-action offerings, in part because of how the sound mixing prioritises the clarity of the actors’ voices within the din of more action-packed moments.

In something of an inversion of the way that Marvel’s gotten comfortable tacking Iron Man onto everything Peter Parker does, “What If… Killmonger Rescued Tony Stark?” uses the filthy-minded billionaire (voiced by Mick Wingert) to situate Killmonger in its larger world of human conflicts. The episode actually opens with a riff on the pivotal moment in the first Iron Man film (directed by Jon Favreau, who returns to voice Happy Hogan after his last variant was eaten by zombies) when Stark’s ambushed in Afghanistan, where he travelled to showcase his new Jericho missiles.

Similar to the film, Tony’s joking around with American soldiers comes to an abrupt end when heavy gunfire begins raining on their convoy, and much of the military personnel is immediately taken out by barrages of bullets.

This particular episode coinciding with the U.S. military’s recent withdrawal from Afghanistan — after two decades of war resulted in the collapse of the country’s government and the Taliban’s return to power — is the sort of situation What If’s creative team, the Walt Disney Company, and Marvel Studios would have probably preferred to sidestep. The optics and their badness are avoidable, though, and highlight what sort of place, thematically, the MCU was in 2008 and how much work Marvel has put into deemphasising (but not fully erasing) its history of putting out war propaganda.

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Stark, who appears to have no combat training here, is all but certain that he’s going to die when one of his own company’s projectile explosives lands near him moments before it’s meant to go off. But in this universe, Killmonger — of all people — just “happens” to roll up in the nick of time to hurl the missile away before single-handedly shooting his way out of the fight and saving Stark in the process. The series pairing Killmonger and Stark makes a certain kind of sense when you consider what sorts of worldviews defined both characters before their hero and villain identities became “super.”

War is what made both Stark and Killmonger who they are, and it continues to drive them as the episode unfolds. Because Killmonger saved Stark from that fateful explosion, he was never inspired to become Iron Man, join the Avengers, or defeat Thanos using the power of the Infinity Stones (though we don’t get to see that far into the future here). Many of What If’s episodes have pointed out how small deviations from the timeline led to exponentially darker twists of fate than we’re accustomed to seeing.

But this particular chapter stays relatively grounded, which speaks to how the studio still sees Iron Man as an important part of its cinematic brand. Without an Iron Man to dazzle the world and put Stark on SHIELD’s radar in a different way, it seems as if the Avengers never quite come together, and Stark — who doesn’t need an arc reactor embedded in his chest to survive — sticks to developing new offensive technology. This time, though, he has Killmonger, a respected Navy SEAL known for his lethality in battle, by his side and filling a role traditionally played by James Rhodes (Don Cheadle), who also appears throughout the episode.

As much as Tony loves his new pal Erik, others in his orbit like Happy, Pepper Potts (Beth Hoyt), and reporter Christine Everhart (Leslie Bibb) have understandable reservations about the newcomer and his motives. Tony’s willingness to immediately invite Killmonger into his inner circle is quite odd, and it makes sense that those close to Tony might suspect whether someone like him might be plotting to take advantage of the lonely, immature playboy.

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As much as some fans love Stark’s canonical friendship with Rhodey from the comics and Marvel’s movies, one of the things this episode of What If gets very right is how discomfiting their relationship sometimes feels in moments where it seems like Stark sees Rhodey his professional Black Friend™ rather than a whole person. What If’s Killmonger is a very different sort of man than Rhodey, but Stark interacts with him in a similar way to how he engaged with Rhodes in the Sacred Timeline, which is to say: like a person who doesn’t realise that his “friend” from work is actually just someone barely tolerating him.

During a press conference about how Stark made it out of Afghanistan, Killmonger admits to a shocked crowd that he did receive intelligence while undercover within Afghanistan about a plan to assassinate Stark — plans bankrolled by Stark Industries’ own chief operating office Obadiah Stane (Kiff VandenHeuvel). Killmonger exposing Stane’s treachery to the world is enough to convince most everyone that he can be trusted, and more than enough to solidify Stark’s decision to make him his new COO.

But Pepper’s never fully able to let go of her gut feeling that something’s amiss about this man’s presence, and it serves her well as the episode unfolds. It also serves to create a kind of distance between her and Tony that she’s never able to close.

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Suspicious as Killmonger is, he’s also charming, and understands that Stark, a reckless member of the elite class, is desperate for contact with other people who’ve lived lives that he can only fantasize about. Tony’s legitimately enjoying himself as he and his new friend tinker in his lab trying to construct a “Liberator” warrior drone of Killmonger’s design, and you get the feeling that Tony really might think that everything’s copacetic. Killmonger, on the other hand, never really seems as if he’s doing anything but playing a long game, and when their project comes to a sudden engineering roadblock, he’s right there with a tiny ring of vibranium to give Tony yet another bright idea.

After Killmonger’s single, tiny piece of vibranium proves to be enough to get one Liberator drone up and running, Tony “gets” the idea to go seek out more from one Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis), who’s more than glad to trade in the ill-gotten Wakandan mineral for the right price. When Tony sends Rhodey to Africa (one of the many duties that come with being one of Stark’s friends, apparently) to negotiate with Klaue for the vibranium, none of them know that there’s a bona fide vigilante lurking in their mists.

With Killmonger guiding him through the set up, Rhodey has no clue that elsewhere on Klaue’s ship, the Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) is already busy dispatching Klaue’s goons, intent on securing the vibranium for his home nation. T’Challa doesn’t particularly care who Rhodey is or what his intentions with the vibranium are, but he also doesn’t expect Killmonger to show up with a sonic tasing cannon that he uses on both his fellow Wakandan and the military officer sworn to America.

In a moment echoing how Black Panther’s Killmonger had no problem killing his own allies and other Black people as he fought (presumably) to exact vengeance for centuries of anti-Black racism, he kills both T’Challa and Rhodey, revealing that he was in cahoots with Klaue the whole time.

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By the time Tony comes to his senses and realises that Killmonger’s playing him like a fiddle, it’s too late, and the Liberator drone Tony summons isn’t enough to keep Killmonger from murdering him in cold blood.

In his final moments, Tony attempts to appeal to Killmonger’s emotions by laying out how they could have been a powerful team of tech-obsessed orphans who beat the odds that were stacked against them. It’s a moment that’s meant to act as the episode’s answer to Black Panther’s scene on the falls, where Killmonger bests T’Challa, and it infuses the episode with some, but perhaps not enough, of the movie’s thesis about why Killmonger does the things he does.

Even as he’s dying, Tony can’t see how he, a wealthy white man with a grotesque amount of power and influence, is not fighting the same battle as a Black man who joined the military after his father was exiled from a place like Wakanda. What If stops short, however, of really giving Killmonger a chance to make the case for his crusade — the episode ends up doubling down on framing him as a villain as it comes to a close, which is a curious choice.

In response to T’Challa’s murder, Wakanda prepares to go to war with the military, and chaotic and misguided as it all seems to Pepper, it’s precisely what Killmonger wants. Between the Patriot Act, and giving the American Government a way to seize Stark Industries’ assets, it takes almost nothing for production on more Liberators drones to be greenlit, and Killmonger plans to use the conflict to achieve his true goal.

On the night that the American drones are meant to invade Wakanda, he arrives just outside the country’s forcefield with Klaue’s help before killing the South African for saying some boring, racist nonsense about Black people being savages. In a graceful gesture of diplomacy, Killmonger brings Klaue’s body to a group of Dora Milaje once he’s within the border, and it’s enough for him to be granted a chance to present himself to the Wakandan royal family.

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Like Pepper, both Queen Mother Ramonda (Angela Bassett) and T’Challa’s younger sister Shuri (Ozioma Akagha) are apprehensive about Killmonger, but T’Chaka (John Kani) welcomes his nephew with open arms, perhaps because of the recent loss of his own son. Killmonger’s offer of vital information about the American invasion is an olive branch to his estranged family that gets at the very heart of Wakanda’s history of isolationism.

An invasion is precisely the sort of event the Wakandans always wished to avoid, but committed themselves to preparing for, and the fact that the last major chunk of preparation is delivered by one of their own is a big part of how Killmonger’s able to ingratiate himselves with them.

Unless the Wakandans let the drones into the country and then close the force field behind them, it’s likely that the robots would overwhelm the human warriors on the ground, and the Wakandans make the difficult decision to put faith in Killmonger’s intel. The information proves to be accurate, at least in part, as the American drones shut down just after the force field is thrown back up. But no one seems to notice the handheld remote Killmonger uses to bring the drones back online, convincing them all that it’s Tony Stark’s doing from beyond the grave.

Ramonda, who is a general in this story, swells with pride as she witnesses Killmonger atop a rhino, smashing drones and saving Doras, but to the audience it’s obviously all a twisted ploy to further embed himself in Wakanda’s seat of power. By helping to drive the American drones away, he gives the Wakandans faith that he’s meant to become the next Black Panther, and it’s unclear whether T’Chaka’s pulling a con himself as he pours the juice of the Heart-Shaped Herb down his nephew’s throat during the sacred ritual.

Drinking the purple juice transports Killmonger’s consciousness to the Ancestral Plane, as it does for all members of the royal family, and when he’s there he’s greeted by none other than his recently-murdered cousin who has a warning of what’s to come.

Screenshot: Disney+/MarvelScreenshot: Disney+/Marvel

From Killmonger’s perspective, T’Challa’s just salty that he got got, but you can tell that his warning is quite earnest and rooted in Marvel’s sense of morality. Eventually, this man’s crimes will be exposed, and the episode’s final moments make clear that the truth will come by way of an unexpected alliance between Shuri and Pepper.

Like some of What If’s most recent episodes, “What If… Killmonger Rescued Tony Stark?” comes to an abrupt end that begs for a continuation that’s likely to come either later this season or down the line in the series’ future, and that’s fine. But as the show builds to its first season finale, the big question now is whether there’s going to be any closure to the stories we’ve been introduced to so far, or if this has all just been the first leg of a much, much, larger set of adventures.

What If airs Wednesdays on Disney+.