Warning: SPOILERS ahead for Black Panther
There's a lot to love about Ryan Coogler's Black Panther, but few could have anticipated that Winston Duke's M'Baku - originally a villain in the comic books - would emerge as a clear fan-favorite. M'Baku is leader of the Jabari tribe, the only Wakandan tribe to refuse to submit to the rule of the Black Panther, and despite his initial antagonism he proves to be a valuable ally in T'Challa's (Chadwick Boseman) fight against Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan).
Black Panther is Duke's first ever film role, though he's previously appeared in TV shows like Person of Interest and Modern Family. M'Baku is also set to return in this summer's Avengers: Infinity War, which will see the nation of Wakanda play a pivotal role in the Avengers' first clash with Thanos.
Interestingly, M'Baku was nearly left out of Black Panther altogether, due to the problematic nature of the character's original design. In the comics he was better known as "Man-Ape," and he wore the skin of a gorilla - head included. He's not the first Marvel character to be updated for modern times, but he is definitely the biggest success story so far - especially when compared to earlier efforts like the Mandarin and the Ancient One. Here's a breakdown of M'Baku's origins, and how Coogler and Duke turned him into one of Black Panther's best characters.
M'Baku's Comic Book Origins
M'Baku a.k.a. Man-Ape first appeared in the pages of The Mighty Avengers #62 (1969) (later reprinted as Jungle Action #5), by Roy Thomas and John Buscema. While T'Challa is away adventuring with the Avengers, he leaves M'Baku - whom he considered and a friend and ally - in charge of Wakanda. However, M'Baku isn't satisfied with simply being a temporary ruler, and when T'Challa returns with the Avengers, M'Baku tricks them into drinking drugged wine. He then reveals himself to T'Challa wearing the guise of the White Gorilla - regalia that T'Challa had forbidden because of the White Gorilla's legendary reputation as "the most savage [and] merciless of beasts."
The rift between T'Challa and M'Baku is fundamentally religious, with T'Challa worshipping the Panther God, and M'Baku worshipping (and deriving his enormous strength from) the White Gorilla. These alliances carried through to the MCU's Black Panther, in which T'Challa and the other Wakandans worship Bast, while M'Baku and the Jabari worship the Hindu monkey god, Hanuman.
As in the movie, M'Baku challenges T'Challa for the throne in ritual combat, meaning that the other Wakandans cannot intervene. In fact, the battle is as much about politics as it is about combat prowess; M'Baku claims that T'Challa has "sold [him]self to our white-skinned enemies," and T'Challa's soldiers demand that he prove the usurper wrong, and prove that he hasn't grown soft during his time away. The two battle fiercely, but Black Panther is ultimately saved by the intervention of the Avengers, who bring a massive panther statue down on M'Baku's head, crushing him. In a eulogy for his former friend, T'Challa declares:
"He was a living anachronism... strange to the ways of civilization! M'Baku had only ever lived by brute strength alone! And so, faced with a world more complex... more subtle... He could only ever battle on until the end."
Christopher Priest's M'Baku
Though M'Baku is a classic and long-running Black Panther enemy, he's not an easy character to adapt for the big screen in the 21st century. The idea of black character called Man-Ape, who dresses as a gorilla and opposes efforts towards civilization, has some very unfortunate implications. Speaking to Screen Rant on the set of Black Panther, producer Nate Moore explained that, "The character of M’Baku has always been problematic. Man Ape is an image that I personally find offensive and can be offensive if handled incorrectly." Because of this, M'Baku is never referred to as "Man-Ape" in the movie - only by his name, or as "Great Gorilla."
The version of M'Baku played by Duke is primarily based on the character's depiction in Christopher Priest's critically-lauded run of Black Panther comics, published from the late 90s to the early 2000s. Priest's M'Baku wanted a Wakanda that was "unsullied by bankrupt Western culture [and] the evils of technology," and led a group of fanatics called the Cult of the White Gorilla, who had made their home in the so-called "forbidden lands." However, Priest cast this iteration of M'Baku in a more sympathetic light by elaborating upon the persecution that had led to his villainy. The Jabari's worship of the White Gorilla was considered blasphemy by other factions in Wakanda, and so T'Challa publicly condemned the tribe - inadvertently causing them to become outcasts, shunned and hunted by the rest of Wakanda. As Moore explained, the movie built upon the idea of M'Baku and the Jabari as outsiders in their own country.
"The idea of the character that we especially borrowed from the Priest run specifically, of this guy who is the head of the religious minority in Wakanda, that’s fascinating. That’s something that’s real. That’s something that we felt we could ground and give him a real character story that made him worth including. So defining the world of Wakanda and how M’Baku and the Jabari fit in that world was important in making that character work at all. Otherwise, we would have just taken him out."
That was a solid foundation upon which to build the character of M'Baku in Black Panther, but the reason that the movie version of the character is so good comes down to two things: great casting, and the reinvention of M'Baku as a heroic figure.
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