It is difficult to write a great antagonist. To achieve balance, one would need to be both powerful enough to pose a considerable threat to our heroes, as well as relatable enough to make us doubt if they are antagonists at all. This kind of nuance is difficult to achieve, sure. But we’ve been given a perfect example recently.
Killmonger, the “villain” from Black Panther (officially the highest US grossing superhero film of all time), had both menace and familiarity. It’s been a full month since I last saw the film and, while I did find Killmonger to be a formidable challenge to T’challa and Wakanda as a whole, today I am still considering the many ways in which I saw myself in Killmonger’s backstory. “My father said that one day he’d take me to Wakanda, the most beautiful place in the world,” he says, moments before he dies. “Can you believe that? A kid from Oakland running around believing in fairytales!”
Erik Killmonger is most relatable here because, just like him, we all understand the world through the stories we are told. Imagine me, a child in the Bahamas, staring into a television screen, watching the Z fighters overcome whatever threat they are forced to face. Imagine me, learning then, how to surpass my limits.
The trouble with every Dragon Ball series has always been its pacing. Long, panning shots of the battlefield and closeups of characters’ faces are often interwoven into equally long shots of exposition, typically from the spectators on the sidelines of a fight (I’m looking at you Krillin, Master Roshi, and even you too, Piccolo). Typically, by the time an episode ends, there’s very little distance traveled through the larger narrative of the series. But in an anime known for its dazzling action, we know the dazzling action is always on its way. We don’t come to Akira Toriyama’s hit series for the writing, we come for the massive and impossible battles. And so, then, the job of the slow writing—the tension and gradual crawl of its episodes—has been, in part, to build our villains until they are insurmountable. The plot goes on and on at a snail’s pace and eventually our villain gains proximity, or they achieve a new form, or they deliver a crushing defeat to our heroes— even the ones we thought were unbeatable themselves.
Jiren is the perfection of this formula. What Jiren lacks in story—a weak, last minute backstory we were given a mere four episodes before the series’ end—he makes up for with power. No matter what Jiren is up against, his strength can see him through. With one raised hand, Jiren catches an attack that we thought he didn’t see coming. He throws his fist in the direction of his appointment and sends them violently through the air, from one end of the arena to the next. Jiren gives Goku all the time he desires to prepare his strongest attack, and then stops that attack with only his gaze—through the act of his looking and through the wielding of his immense will and absolute power. Jiren, it would seem, is truly invisible.
And yet, I know this is a story about transformation. I know the transformation is coming because once, while still a child living back on my island of New Providence, I stared into the glow of a television as Goku pushed past his limits during a losing fight against Frieza. I know the transformation is coming because a few years later, just as I was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, I watched as Gohan (who was the same age as me) surpassed an enemy that was unsurpassable just moments earlier.
Since those days, my chronic illness has gotten the better of me many times over. Since then, I’ve returned back home to stand in a field and watched as my father was lowered into his grave. Since then, I’ve seen many people that I love go up against unbeatable demands, again and again. Oh, how I am so desperate to discover new ways to overcome.
“Shut up and watch,” says Beerus to a growingly concerned Krillin as Goku continues to ascend. Pushed to the brink, Goku takes a deep breath and is then swallowed in light. And just like that, Goku has obtained a new form. His hair is swaying in the wind, colored by a sheen of silver to signify he has become something new. His face is calm—no joy or fear, just certainty. He’s been dipped into infinity and the gods have risen to their feet as a display of respect. They know, just as we know, that Goku has returned from some brighter place with the means by which he needs to win.
I had a pretty strict Catholic upbringing. My grandmother, my aunts, and my mother all grew up in the church and wanted me and my siblings to grow up in the church as well. Every Sunday morning, rain or shine, we’d be in mass at the same time and at the same place. And in mass, as a child, I’d stare in wonder as the priest went through each of his particular routines: rubbing his hand slow while holy and precious water was poured over them, his face lowering to kiss the cloth that lined the wide table on the altar, the placement of his hands on the head of a fellow worshipper as a sigh of comfort escaped from their lips. Once or twice, I’d turn to my mother, who usually sat close by, and I’d tug on her stocking or her blouse or her shoulder, and I’d ask, while pointing, “Why is he doing that?” And she’d reply, “Be still my child, and watch.”
My fascination mostly came from my lack of understanding of how a priest became a priest. Outside of mass, I’d see our priest often—whether at a cookout around the corner or when he visited my grandmother’s house to say a good word. In these spaces, I imagined him no different than me. He told jokes and laughed, and he’d sometimes ask me about my day. He ate the same food I ate and wore the same brand of jeans that I had seen hanging from my father’s waist. Right before he’d call it a night and return to wherever it is I thought priests returned to, I’d notice small signs of exhaustion on his face, not unlike the exhaustion I had seen in my mother’s eyes when she came back home during the late hours of night, after she had finished working what extra jobs were required to raise her three kids on her own.
But at mass, my priest was different. While draped in the majestic colored robes that hung from his shoulders, his eyes were still and his movements were precise. The entire church knew to stand whenever he entered a room like this, whenever the chapel doors opened and we saw him waiting in sunlight, ready to begin his slow and glowing parade into the church where he would lead us in worship. Back then, I wondered what happened in between the times I’d see him reverent and the times I’d see him human. I often pictured that, hours before mass, he’d spend his time in prayer. Or maybe he spent all of his time in silence. I imagined that perhaps he was required to study the scripture until he could recite it from memory. I thought there had to have been some great difficulty, some immense bit of effort he had to endure to unlock the door inside himself, a small opening through which a new, more gifted version of him could pass through.
Even then, in my adolescence, I could recognize the face of a man who was put through a trial that I did not think I was capable of surviving myself. Sure, I’ve seldom returned to church in recent years as the relationship between me and prayer has declined. But now, as a non-believer, I still know to stand—just like the gods are standing for Goku—when I am in the presence of anyone swollen with light; a priest, sure, but also any of my loved ones when they walk amongst the flowers, when they return to my arms after I thought they’d never return again.
I watch Goku’s transformation on loop. Over and over, I watch the light envelop his body as his hair begins to glow. The episode ends and I start it again.
The day after Goku mastered Ultra Instinct, I learned that another black man was murdered by the police. I learned first through Twitter, and then again through an article on CNN. This time the man’s name was Stephon Clark. This time it was in Sacramento. This time, again, the man was unarmed and a threat to no one.
Now, a week later, I am watching the body-cam footage of his execution. It seems after discovering Stephon Clark in his own backyard, the officers in question perceived the object in his hand to be a gun. With their weapons drawn, they ask Clark to drop what is in his hand. A few quick seconds pass and Stephon Clark is on the floor after being shot twenty times. Clark, blinded by the brightness of the officers’ flashlight, had no time to react. After the murder is done, it is discovered that Clark was, in fact, holding only a cell phone.
The officers laid eyes on Stephon Clark and a few short moments later, he was executed. It would seem, then, that Stephon Clark was killed by the act of their looking, and the poor wielding of their will and absolute power. It always happens like this: a black body seen and perceived as a threat, and then a mass of bullets is sent to end it.
I cannot come up with the exact words to explain why I watched the body-cam footage over and over and over again. It would seem, at minimum, that I am as obsessed with witnessing new life and potential enter a body as I am with studying the mechanism by which light and potential is forced out of one.
It is difficult to write the perfect antagonist. To achieve balance, one would need to be both powerful enough to pose a considerable threat to our heroes, as well as relatable enough to make us doubt if they are antagonists at all.
While talking about the movie in an interview, Black Panther’s director and co-writer, Ryan Coogler, said, “The whole film, if we did it right, it should exit in a grey area where people have to make difficult choices.” In an interview elsewhere, while speaking about writing Killmonger, the other co-writer of Black Panther, Joe Robert Cole, said “I think the best villains are ones that have a point of view that’s relatable and that you can empathize with. Sometimes it’s how far you take things that makes you a villain, and not necessarily the perspective.”
I look at the body-cam video taken from my antagonist’s perspective and I find that I have no sympathy, no grey area of questioning whether this villain is right or wrong. Instead, I have rage. Instead, I have grief. Instead, again, I am a cocktail of vengeance and tempered patience.
This country is an engine of empire, and what it lacks in story it makes up for with power. For all of this imagining I have come here to do with you, friends, there are those with absolute power who waste their imagination to see me—and those who look like me—as a threat. And what a cycle of waste we find ourselves in. I sit here, looking into the soft shimmer of my laptop, and I imagine the gun that might unmake me. I imagine it trained on me even now, its open mouth pointing and following along to wherever I choose to place my body. I imagine its trigger will be pulled during a time when I may not be looking, while I am staring into some close and distracting light.
But enough of my fears and the nightmares I am left to walk through. Instead, I want to point myself toward my heroes again. I look at Goku now and consider the black superheroes that we have been given. Most recently they’ve been Luke Cage and Black Panther, both of which have been written to be bulletproof. But at this point, I must admit, I am exhausted from watching the bullet make contact with the body. Countless times I’ve seen the metal hit the skin and watched it ricochet away. The problem with being bulletproof is that it places the burden on the body to prevent injury, to harden and either absorb the blow or find some means to repel it. In the name of better imagination, I wish the burden of repulsion to be removed from all my heroes. I look at Goku now and I wish my heroes untouchable. May they walk home in the darkness and have the bullets miss, no matter how perfect the aim.
Under the weight of these recent years—years that have always had sharp teeth but now have a mouth more willing to show them—there are so many of my chosen kin that have been made to bleed. I watch Goku on my laptop screen in the late hours of the weekend and I see my kin as they are: on the brink of destruction, standing tall, facing their oblivion anyway. I say “my kin” and I am referring to all of my friends who are still here. I am referring to everyone who has somehow made it back to the arms of love by the luck of their instincts alone. I praise everyone I can still touch, their warmth a violent protest against the cold weapons of death. Oh, how we have found a way to survive for so long. Look at how all the bullets have missed. Look at how the light makes us seem invincible.
Tell your gods to stand up.
Featured image of bullets © Arthurrh via Wikimedia Commons.