WHAT IF…? S1E6 “What If…Killmonger Rescued Tony Stark?”
Let’s face it, the vast majority of Marvel Studios films have a villain problem in that they’re either completely forgettable and/or bite the dust by the end. For every exception like Loki, there’s always a Whiplash or Yellowjacket. And the less said about the Dark Elf Malekith, the better. However, towards the beginning of Phase 3, a shift occurred when the villains in the Marvel Cinematic Universe actually became developed and compelling as characters. It’s probably best epitomized by N’Jadaka / Erik “Killmonger” Stevens played by Michael B. Jordan in the seminal Black Panther film. The fact that Killmonger’s popularity spawned the hashtag #KillmongerWasRight on Twitter is a testament to Jordan’s portrayal.
In the fashion of a true tragic hero, Killmonger opted for death rather than imprisonment meaning his time in the MCU had come to an end. But thanks to the What If…? animated series, fans get another chance to see Killmonger in action.
The episode starts essentially at the very beginning of the MCU as Tony Stark (Mick Wingert) is ambushed while in Afghanistan to demonstrate the new Stark Industries Jericho missiles to the military. But instead of being captured by the Ten Rings organization (presumably under the orders of Wenwu) his life is saved by soldier Erik Stevens codenamed Killmonger.
Returning home, Tony holds a press conference (sans cheeseburgers) where he announces he is hiring Stevens as his company’s new Chief Security Officer much to the chagrin of Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau). An inquiry from reporter Christine Everhart (Leslie Bibb) leads Erik to reveal that the attempted plans to kidnap Stark were bankrolled by Stark Industries COO Obadiah Stane (Kiff VandenHeuvel).
After being promoted to COO (not bad for his first day on the job), Erik reveals to Tony his doctoral thesis of an automatic combat drone to replace human soldiers but couldn’t develop an interface. Returning the favor, Tony helps make Erik’s Gundam-inspired “Project Liberator” a reality. Meanwhile, Pepper Potts (Beth Hoyt) doesn’t quite trust Tony’s new BFF and starts looking into his past with some help from military liaison James Rhodes (Don Cheadle).
Project Liberator hits a snag when the duo realizes they need a proper energy source. Although Tony abandons the prospect of a miniature arc reactor, Erik suggests vibranium as a self-sustaining energy source. They hatch a plan to send Rhodey to go under diplomatic cover to secure vibranium from nefarious black-market arms dealer Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis). Things go south when T’Challa/Black Panther (played again by the late Chadwick Bosemann) infiltrates the meeting to retrieve the stolen vibranium. However, it’s all a trap set by Killmonger who kills both Rhodey and T’Challa and frames America for the death of the Wakandan prince.
Killmonger tries to convince Tony to retaliate but Stark is finally wise to his new BFF after discovering the truth behind Rhodey’s death. Using Killmonger’s Royal Ring, Stark activates the Liberator drone Erik programmed to take him out. It’s all for naught as Erik “freestyles” destroying the drone and killing Tony. After wiping the J.A.R.V.I.S. AI, General Thaddeus Ross (Mike McGill) seizes control of Stark Industries for the US military and launch the Liberator into mass production for a war with Wakanda, using Klaue’s vibranium to fuel the drones.
Speaking of Klaue, the arms dealer escorts Killmonger to the border of Wakanda, where just like in the “sacred timeline”, Killmonger executes Klaue to gain an audience with the Royal Family. There he reveals to T’Chaka (John Kani), Ramonda (Angela Bassett), and Shuri (Ozioma Akagha) his true identity of N’Jadaka, the son of N’Jobu the younger brother of T’Chaka. Finally taking the responsibility for “omitting the truth” about his younger brother, T’Chaka welcomes his long-lost nephew into Wakanda.
There’s no time for a proper family reunion as war is coming to Wakanda in the form of the Liberator drones. Per N’Jadaka’s suggestion, they let the killer robots into Wakanda’s force shields so the electromagnetic interference can block their satellite uplink. While Ramonda and Shuri are hesitant to trust Killmonger, they accept his plan.
Wakanda opens its shields and while the plan works, they end up revealing the truth of their country’s glory to General Ross. But in yet another double cross move, Killmonger secretly reactivates the drones, putting the blame on Stark building a backup transmitter to avoid suspicion. The Dora Milaje and the Border Tribe and even Queen Ramonda decked out in Dora Milaje garb face the Liberator drones on the battlefield. After joining the battle on a charging white rhino, Killmonger helps save the day and earns the favor of Queen Ramonda.
In a callback to the Black Panther film, Killmonger watches the sunset atop Mount Bashenga where he is approached by his uncle T’Chaka and once more deceives him into believing he is a loyal servant of Wakanda. Killmonger’s machinations succeed as he becomes the next Black Panther and is bestowed enhanced abilities from the Heart-Shaped Herb. While visiting the Ancestral Plane, Killmonger is confronted by his cousin T’Challa saying that his quest for vengeance and power will get the best of him eventually.
Meanwhile, as Ross prepares another attack on Wakanda, Pepper Potts discovers Shuri in her office who reveals to her the truth about Killmonger. Pepper and Shuri decide to join forces to hopefully end the fight.
The Watcher (Jeffrey Wright) closes out the episode with a poignant observation that whether intentional or not, serves as a touching tribute for Chadwick Boseman.
“Heroes are never really gone. They live forever as do the ones they inspire to carry on the fight.”
- Killmonger’s background in Black Panther revealed that attended and graduated from the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, before joining the United States Navy SEALs. He was eventually recruited into a Joint Special Operations Command ghost unit associated with the CIA.
- An upgraded version of the sonic taser weapon from Iron Man is featured in this episode.
- Killmonger shares a love for anime just like the actor who plays him Michael B. Jordan, as Jordan revealed in THR.
- After seeing Ramonda in action in this episode, I really hope Angela Bassett gets some action scenes as Ramonda in the upcoming Black Panther sequel.
New episodes of What If…? are available for streaming Wednesdays on Disney+.