Learning from the “Bad Guy” in “Black Panther”

Michael B. Jordan in Black Panther (2018)
The latest release in the Marvel Cinematic Universe has been surrounded by buzz and excitement for months — and rightfully so. Unlike other Marvel movies, “Black Panther” brought in new audiences and purposely broke the mold of a typical superhero movie.

For the first time, a young black man was the focus of a major full-length superhero film, but it wasn’t just that — this story also featured powerful female figures, and the film creators were purposeful in hiring a black director and writers and a majority black cast and crew. The story of Black Panther was much bigger and more significant than just a strong dude in a sweet cat costume jumping out of spaceships and onto moving cars. It’s a statement that anyone of any color can be a hero — not just good-looking white guys named Chris (I’m looking at you, Evans, Hemsworth, Pratt and Pine).

I think it’s wonderful the film is performing so well at the box office and getting Certified Fresh reviews from critics. Beyond all that, though, I want to take a look at a different aspect of the film that I think is significant for us as believers to consider.

Good vs. Evil

Another reason the film is being so highly regarded is the performance of Michael B. Jordan as the villain in the story named Erik Killmonger. With such an abstract and nonchalant name like that, you might be surprised to hear that Killmonger is not a very nice man. The character is full of rage and admits to committing more murders than he can count. But he’s a fascinating character because he’s actually fighting for a just cause.

He goes about it in horrible ways, but Killmonger is motivated by justice and equality, specifically for others of African heritage who he sees repeatedly being taken advantage of by white people. Unlike most other “bad guys” fighting for wealth or power or fame, this character actually fights for worthy causes — he just does it the wrong way.

Good Guys and Bad Guys

Most movie plots are fairly simple. It’s always obvious who’s the good guy and who’s the bad guy, and usually the good guy wins after an hour of overcoming obstacles and getting the attention of the pretty girl.

Real life is not that simple. The older I get, the more I realize the fuzziness and gray areas between “right” and “wrong.” I absolutely believe in absolute truth, and there are definitely truths worth fighting for. However, I think we often oversimplify some very complicated issues. Just like Killmonger, I think some people today are standing up for worthy causes, but they’re going about it the wrong way.

Think about it: If someone were to make a movie about your life, you’d clearly be the good guy, right? Who would be your villain? Does that person know he or she is your villain? If the roles were flipped, would you be the bad guy in his or her movie?

You can probably think of times in your life when you thought you were being helpful, but it actually ended up causing more pain than joy. If you’re honest with yourself, you can also probably think of times when some pretty horrible people in your life actually did some good. Those messy realities don’t translate to movies or TV shows very often, but it’s the real world we find ourselves in.

Upside Down

I once heard a wise leadership principle that was something along the lines of “Always look for the upside of his side and the downside of your side.” If you’re able to see and understand the motivation behind the actions of “bad people” in your life, you’ll likely view them a little differently.

When you know details of other people’s stories, you often understand why they do the things they do. Those who may seem like villains likely have at least a nugget of good hidden in their past. When you remember and truly believe that, you have a much better chance of getting along with people and living in unity — instead of labeling them as the bad guys in your story.

Again, evil is evil. I’m not excusing bad behavior or leaning into relativism where we ignore or shrug off inappropriate behavior. I believe the Bible is our anchor for truth, and we must stand up for it. In “Black Panther,” Killmonger had moderately good motives, but he still clearly needed to be stopped.

Still, I think we would be wise to be cautious and remember the words of Jesus in Matthew 7:

Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, “Let me take the speck out of your eye,” when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.

Who is your villain? What speck do you see in his or her eye? Whatever it is, it needs to be addressed. However, before you start your heroic journey, take a look in the mirror (“I’m startin’ with the maaaaan innnnn the mirror!”). What’s in your eye? Is your speck actually a log? What changes do you need to make? What’s the upside of your villain’s side? Can you be objective enough to see the faults in your own views?

Much like the citizens of Wakanda, the world needs heroes and there are bad guys. However, we would all be wise to first look at ourselves and see our own faults and weaknesses. In the messy world we live in, don’t assume you’re always the good guy. Work on yourself and the log in your eye first, and then go after the bad guys.

And if you’re really brave, do it in a sweet cat costume.

About the Author

Matt Ehresman
Matt Ehresman

Matt Ehresman works as the creative media director at First MB Church in Wichita, Kan. He loves using video, images, words and sounds to help people think about things that matter. He is a graduate of Sterling College and Regent University and an expert on all things Mountain Dew and superheroes. He is the proud husband of Tillie and occasionally frustrated owner of Jarvis (their mini Aussie).