Yes, MORE violent.
This episode was difficult. There are some extraordinary moments, but the overall story is so relentlessly bleak that it was probably the toughest for me to watch so far. I’m also not sure I’m okay with how they handled Killmonger, who was, after all, right about a lot of things? (Although so was Nakia, obviously, and I prefer her methods.)
Let’s dive in!
This episode opens with… the opening scene of the entire MCU. We’re with Tony Stark, in a military caravan, on the way to a weapons demo. It’s all fun and games until the Ten Rings strike! But this time, when Tony stares in horror at one of his own missiles, Killmonger walks up and nonchalantly chucks it into the distance.
Naturally, Tony decides to make him his new BFF.
But as The Watcher informs us, without the ordeal of building a new sense of purpose in a CAVE from a BOX of SCRAPS, Tony doesn’t become the hero that we know from the MCU. Instead, he decides that the best way to protect U.S. soldiers is a new commitment to Stark Industries’ weapons tech. While he’s announcing this at a boozy press conference, Killmonger reveals that Obadiah Stane was behind the Ten Rings attack, Happy punches Obadiah out, and Tony gives Killmonger Obadiah’s old job.
Pepper is… not pleased.
She’s used to people buddying up to Tony to get something out of him, but she can’t figure out what it is Killmonger wants.
Tony, meanwhile, is just happy to have a new gearhead friend. He brings Killmonger to his lab, and the two of them work on finishing Killmonger’s old MIT thesis, “Project Liberator,” the one that proposed replacing the U.S. Army with drones. And the drone he’s proposing is a straight up GUNDAM.
OK, Killmonger being an anime fan was a lovely touch, as was Tony’s response. (“Worst case scenario, we’ll end up with the world’s most expensive Gundam model”??? Are you fucking KIDDING ME???) But if you’re going to tease us like this, What If…?, can Season 2 please include a riff on Evangelion or Mobile Suit Gundam or something? Or hell, mash ‘em up? Give Killmonger Char Aznable’s storyline, and Tony can have Shinji’s? And they fight but also…fall in love? And Howard the Duck can be Pen Pen! And, and…sorry. Ahh, back to the plot: the drones need more power than Tony can supply! R&D is at a standstill! Until Killmonger proposes a way to get more vibranium. There’s the fellow named Ulysses Klaue…
In the interest of keeping Stark Industry’s corporate nose clean, they send Rhodey to negotiate with Klaue, but then the Black Panther crashes the deal, which, of course, turns out to be the point. Killmonger uses Obadiah’s sonic taser to murder T’Challa, then uses one of the Black Panther’s claws to stab Rhodey. Klaue steps out of the shadows and applauds Killmonger, revealing that the two were in on this all along.
Having framed the Prince of Wakanda for the murder of a U.S. Colonel, Killmonger plans to sit back and watch the international incident play out… except Tony has a full thermal map of the fight, and knows it was a double-cross. When Killmonger asks him if he’s going to call the police, Tony replies that he wants “justice,” and unleashes one of the Project Liberator drones on him. But Tony is still thinking like a computer nerd, not a fighter, and doesn’t realize that of course Killmonger has more moves than the ones he programmed into the drone. Over the course of the fight, we finally see all of his self-inflicted battle scars, and he explains them to Tony, right before he kills him. He uses a Wakandan spear to make it look like a hit, and the international incident is back on.
General Ross seizes Stark Industries assets, meaning that Pepper is now a military employee, and Happy’s obsolete. They put the Liberator drones in production and send them off to Wakanda.
Not Killmonger, though. He and Klaue travel to Wakanda by a back route, Killmonger shoots Klaue, then brings his body to the Dora Milaje as a peace offering. He presents himself as a loyal child of Wakanda, and T’Chaka takes him in. On Killmonger’s advice, the royal family permits the drone army to march inside the barrier, where the Stark Industries tech fails and the drones shut down. Except! Killmonger has a secret back-up installed and wakes them back up, so King T’Chaka and Princess Shuri have front row seats as he heroically charges into battle beside Okoye and General Ramonda. Once they defeat the army, he is fully accepted by the family, and T’Chaka makes him the new Black Panther.
On the immortal plane, Killmonger and T’Challa finally have a conversation, and T’Challa warns his cousin that unearned power is going to come with consequences—possibly on the earthly plane, possibly on the spiritual one, but consequences either way. Killmonger doesn’t seem too bothered.
He immediately starts speaking with T’Chaka about freeing their brothers and sisters around the world, and this time, T’Chaka seems willing to listen.
Meanwhile General Ross is launching a full war on Wakanda, despite Pepper pointing out that most Americans can’t find it on a map. When Ross responds that soon they won’t need to, she retreats to her office in despair, only to find Shuri standing behind her desk. The Princess of Wakanda has evidence that Killmonger murdered her brother and Tony.
“Mr. Stark was a genius, but he wasn’t the only genius.”
The episode ends with the Watcher reminding us that heroes will always exist, and always inspire others.
First, like I said, this episode is bleak as hell. Killmonger never gets what he wants, really. He’s clearly aching for acceptance and family, but keeps selling that out for his enormous revenge plan, which is almost certainly not going to work, even with Wakanda’s might behind him.
Tony is a straight up alcoholic in this timeline. Not the lightly implied problem that gets sorted out offscreen by the end of Iron Man 2—in this episode I think we only see him once without a drink in his hand. This is good, obviously, because it’s an interesting part of his character arc, especially given that in this timeline he’s never forced to reckon with it. It’s just upsetting to see.
Watching Black Panther and Rhodey die within seconds of each other? Not fun!
Watching Klaue die after he calls Killmonger “boy”??? EXTREMELY fun.
General Ramonda??? Hell yeah.
Watching Stark Industries turn into a fully armed and operational war machine with Ross at the helm? Fucking horrifying.
More to the point, though, the Killmonger plotline in Black Panther is very complex, and rooted in issues I am not qualified to discuss—but having said that I’m not sure interrogating it in a short cartoon format really works? There is a lot to tease out in the relationship between T’Challa and Killmonger, their fathers, colonialism, military force, the justification of violence, whiteness, Blackness, etc., and I’m not sure this episode has enough space to deal with all of it. Much like the way “What If…Doctor Strange Lost His Heart Instead of His Hands” became a bit too dark to work in such a short format, here Killmonger becomes such a single-minded villain that it robs the character of much of the nuance he had in Black Panther. But that’s the only way the episode can work as an episode because they only have about thirty minutes to work with.
So what we end up with is Rhodey, a Black career Army official, telling Killmonger he has to work within the system in order to save it, and T’Challa, a prince with a heroic birthright, telling him his unearned power will be his doom—without acknowledging what his father did to Killmonger’s father. (It’s possible that in this timeline he doesn’t know? We never see T’Chaka admit his role in his brother’s death, and I’m not sure how the spirit plane works.) We have a lost young Black man, with no home, offered a sort of brotherhood by a very rich and powerful white man, but in probably the best line of the episode, Killmonger tells Tony “The difference between you and me is that you can’t see the difference between you and me.” Which, if I want to give the writers the benefit of the doubt, and I do, I think that’s what they’re getting at with Pepper’s arc. She misses what Killmonger wants from Tony, because she literally can’t see Killmonger. His life and struggles are so far beyond her own that he’s a blank slate to her.
And speaking of that: as much as part of me loves the idea of Shuri and Pepper teaming up to save the world from war, how did Shuri get that intel? You can’t just say the word “genius” and handwave that shit. I mean, maybe in that timeline having evidence of criminal activity, and sharing that evidence with trusted authorities, will actually yield results?
What a weird timeline!
This episode has my very favorite What If…? line so far, and that is…(imagine a drumrolll):
- Tony Stark, upon being asked if he was injured in the attack: I did spill my drink. And it was a twenty-six Macallan, so I’m pretty sure that’s a war crime.
- Rhodey, on Killmonger: He’s done pretty good for a kid from Oakland.
- Tony, on his R&D suite: I built everything in here myself… except for the Lambo, thats 3D printed.
- Tony: If we miniaturize an arc reactor? Nah, that’s a dumb idea.
- Rhodey: You have to be part of the system to change the system.
Killmonger: Nah, you can burn it down.
- Killmonger to Tony: The difference between you and me is that you can’t see the difference between you and me.