BY MATT TUCK
The latest episode of What If…? mixes elements of Black Panther, Iron Man, Iron Man 2, and a sprinkle of Age of Ultron to ultimately give a lesson on the difference between a perfect soldier and a good man.
If there is one thing What If…? strives to teach, it’s that Doctor Erskine was right all along when he told Steve Rogers what it takes to be a hero, by being “not a perfect soldier, but a good man.” In other words, it’s the old cliché that it’s what is inside that counts.
So far in What If…?, that is the lesson being taught: to be a superhero, you must first have heart. We saw it in the first episode with Captain Carter and the Hydra Stomper and again in Episode Two when T’Challa showed what it meant to truly be a Star-Lord. Then episodes three and four demonstrated what happens when that heart is taken away, and the result was lots of casualties.
Episode Six reminds viewers of that same concept of the difference between the perfect soldier and a good man. Eric Killmonger rescues Tony Stark in Afghanistan, preventing Stark’s personal growth on his way to becoming a true hero. From there, Killmonger does what he has been trained to do his entire life: infiltrate and eliminate. By the end of the episode, it is clear that he is the perfect soldier, but he lacks compassion. True, he has his understandable motivations. However, that is what makes T’Challa better suited to be Black Panther - compassion. Thus, Episode Six serves to further demonstrate why Killmonger was never meant to be a ruler because he doesn't have a hero's heart.
The What If…? midseason trailer proved what we suspected all along, that the open-ended episodes still have more story to tell. By the second half of “King Killmonger,” I anticipate we will see Shuri (possibly aged up to adulthood) prove that she has what her cousin does not - the heart and soul of the Black Panther. At the same time, Pepper will likely assume the role of Rescue. In this timeline where Tony was not given the chance to become a hero, Pepper will become the Iron Man that Tony was meant to be.
It all comes back to Doctor Erksine’s words of wisdom to Steve Rogers, who was “not a perfect soldier, but a good man.” When we take a step back and look at the whole of What If…? so far, it becomes apparent that the underlying theme of each episode is about the heart of a hero. While the “King Killmonger” episode is not perfect, the point is made: Killmonger’s skill set makes him the superior warrior, but it’s T’Challa’s humanity even towards his enemies that make him the better Panther.
As the rest of the What If…? episodes continue to build its own universes, there is no doubt the continuing theme of heart will endure. When the first season is officially wrapped, it will have painted a clear portrait of what it means to be a superhero and the fine edge they walk between heroics and villainy. This is a story that has been told time and again in many forms, and it is as meaningful today as it has ever been.
Matt Tuck is the author of the novel, Lost Bones of the Dead. He is a professional writer, avid comic collector, former teacher, and an international man of mystery. You can follow him on his Facebook page, The Comic Blog.