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    Thursday, March 30, 2023

    Jonathan Majors is ready for his Marvel Studios 'big bad' moment

    Early Monday morning, Jonathan Majors has football, Black history and his Marvel future on the mind.

    Like many African Americans, Majors is basking in the previous night's historic achievements of Patrick Mahomes and Jalen Hurts, who became the first two Black quarterbacks to face off in the Super Bowl. A seismic moment for the culture that guaranteed Black pride would be victorious no matter which player won.

    Majors flashes a megawatt smile on a Zoom call from New York, while apologizing for eating a bowl of fruit as he charges back up after a morning workout. He notes that Mahomes is from Tyler, Tex. Hurts is from Houston. "Imma claim 'em. Because I'm from Dallas," he says. He's glowing in the magic of Black men from his home state doing big things during Black History Month.

    Majors joins that club Friday, as his acting career hits a new phase: conquering the Marvel Cinematic Universe. He makes his superhero movie debut as the time-traveling threat Kang the Conqueror in "Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania," which brings titular star Paul Rudd into hallowed MCU trilogy status.

    Just don't call Majors merely the villain. He's the "big bad," continuing through multiple upcoming MCU movies, prompting the Avengers to assemble again on-screen for 2025's "Avengers: The Kang Dynasty." There is a difference. He's not just the bad guy who dies at the end of the movie.

    And his role makes more Black history in the MCU, following in the footsteps of Samuel L. Jackson's irreplaceable, ongoing performance as Nick Fury, leader of the Avengers, and Chadwick Boseman and Letitia Wright's portrayals of the most popular and important Black superhero ever, the Black Panther. Majors is walking into an MCU where a Black man (Anthony Mackie) is currently Captain America. And he can't wait for Kang to try to destroy it all.

    "I wouldn't have signed up to play a villain," Majors says. "The contractual conversation was big bad. And we all know what that means. There's a mantle of that. That's Ultron. That's Loki. That's Thanos. That's Kang.

    "We've not had a big bad of color let alone an African American," he adds. "And I differentiate, because we live in America and it's a very different conversation being a person of color versus being an African American. Unfortunately for us, we need that icon, we need the thing to look at to let us know we can do that. . . . This is the major leagues. It doesn't get bigger than this. It means a great deal to me. And not for me, but for us."

    The character first appeared in the pages of Marvel Comics in "Fantastic Four" No. 19 in 1963, as Rama-Tut, a time-traveling pharaoh. We don't find out it's Kang until he appears with that name for the first time in "Avengers" No. 8 the following year, taking on the team of superheroes in his trademark high-tech, green-and-purple suit that Majors wears in "Quantumania." Kang, who is White in the comics, was created by Marvel Comics legends Stan Lee and Jack Kirby.

    He's from the 31st century and known to fans as an evil force with multiple versions of himself that exist in Marvel's expansive multiverse. Majors first appeared as a variant of the character, named He Who Remains, in an episode of the Disney Plus series "Loki" starring Tom Hiddleston as Thor's reluctant adoptive-brother-turned-time-cop. Majors watched everything Hiddleston had appeared in for Marvel Studios because He Who Remains was supposed to know everything Loki had ever done. When it came time to play Kang, he expanded that preparation.

    "I'm never cavalier about . . . anything, but especially not about the work," Majors said. "As Kang, I had to study the entire pantheon of Marvel. All of it. [The movies] and the comic books. You unload and try to invest completely. There's a lot of homework to do. That's what helps with the improvisation. He Who Remains says, 'I paved the road, you just walked down it.' So this Kang gene, whatever it is, I like to imagine that I know every single thing that's happened [to every MCU hero]. Therefore, I know you. That's the fun part."

    Majors is quick to demonstrate his now encyclopedic knowledge of all things MCU. He declares Thanos (played in a motion capture performance by Josh Brolin) the galactic leader of "gangster goons," the "prime minister" of evil space. He's quick to point out that Loki isn't just royalty but a prince of two worlds, referencing his adoptive father King Odin of Asgard and his true origin as a child born on Jotunheim to Laufey, king of the Frost Giants.

    "I do my homework, boy," Majors says proudly.

    Majors says what separates Kang from previous Marvel super-threats is he's all alone. Loki has an adoptive family that loves him. Thanos had his loyal followers who fought beside him. Even Ultron had Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch, if only for a moment.

    "Kang is both his own muscle, his own intelligentsia, his own concierge," Majors says. "He's all that. That's what makes him quite dangerous."

    Majors's Kang and Rudd's Ant-Man are an odd pairing for a superhero movie clash. The trilogy takes Rudd, an actor who sharpened his comedic chops in such films as "Anchorman," and slaps a superhero suit on the hilarity. "Quantumania" is jokes against a juggernaut. But Majors says Rudd's humor packs a punch.

    "He's coming in with a very, very, very serious funny energy. And if you can't match that, he will push you off the screen and push you out the scene," Majors says. "I have no ego about that. If you do it, congratulations. But Kang cannot be pushed off the screen. Kang pushes other folks out. I conquer people."

    Peyton Reed has directed all three "Ant-Man" films and says that although there were a handful of candidates up for Kang, he began campaigning for Majors the moment he learned the character would be unleashed on the entirety of the MCU. Reed says he's seen everything Majors has starred in and was particularly blown away by his performance in the 2017 film "Hostiles" alongside another MCU star, Christian Bale.

    "Jonathan is lying, dying in a hospital bed," Reed says. "Christian Bale is sitting there having his last words with him and its really Christian Bale's scene but you cannot take your eyes off of the guy lying there dying in bed, and it was Jonathan. Jonathan was my only choice."

    "I wanted someone who had a very different energy than Paul Rudd as Ant-Man," Reed adds. "You're not going to be able to joke your way out of a situation with Jonathan's Kang."

    It is impossible not to notice that despite being the evil of all evils in the MCU, Majors very much has the look, build and charisma of a superhero. His muscular frame has recently been seen in Ebony and the trailer for "Creed III." Could he see himself on the other side of the fight in a superhero movie in the near future? A Black Superman movie written by Ta-Nehisi Coates is still reportedly in development at DC Studios. Would Majors ever consider putting an "S" on his chest?

    "I like telling stories on a big level. I love Ta-Nehisi. He's the man," Majors says. "Superman is an intriguing idea. But as it stands right now, Kang's wearing the cape now. There's only one cape in my life now."

    Even still, surely DC Studios co-head James Gunn has Majors's cellphone number? Majors, without wasting a breath: "He better."