M’Baku is trouble for Black Panther.
He’s the ruler of the Wakanda’s mountain tribe and has serious issues with how T’Challa is fulfilling his role as the nation’s new king.
But M’Baku was also a potential problem for Black Panther the movie.
That’s because the comic-book version of this villain, who first appeared in Avengers #62 in March 1969, encased himself in white fur and attacked the hero under the moniker “Man-Ape.”
Rather than abandon one of Black Panther’s most famous antagonists, Marvel Studios decided to rescue M’Baku. The character is a hard-bitten, ruthless warrior, but as played by actor Winston Duke (Person of Interest) he also has dignity and strength. Not that this makes him a nice guy.
And in a fictional culture where leaders take on the symbols of native animals (like the panther), his tribe’s affinity for the gorilla is regarded as something noble — not cringeworthy.
Still, the filmmakers felt that “Man-Ape” would never be an easy name for newcomers to accept.
“We don’t call him Man-Ape,” executive producer Nate Moore told EW during our set visit. “We do call him M’Baku.”
The problem was self-evident. “Having a black character dress up as an ape, I think there’s a lot of racial implications that don’t sit well, if done wrong,” said Moore. “But the idea that they worship the gorilla gods is interesting because it’s a movie about the Black Panther who, himself, is a sort of deity in his own right.”
So he’s still adorned with elements of fur on his arms and legs and sports a chest-plate that hints at the animal that is symbolic of his tribe. But he doesn’t wear the full gorilla mask that, in the comics, often made him literally look like that creature.
Director Ryan Coogler and his co-writer Joe Robert Cole (American Crime Story) borrowed some inspiration for the character from Marvel scribe Christopher Priest, who had an acclaimed 1998-2003 run on the Black Panther series.
“You learn that M’Baku is essentially the head of the religious minority in Wakanda and we thought that was interesting,” Moore said. “Wakanda is not a monolithic place. They have a lot of different factions.”
In Priest’s story line, M’Baku was enraged that his White Gorilla cult was outlawed, leading to a clash with the Panther. The character’s exact role in the film is still being kept under wraps, but the filmmakers confirm that M’Baku and his Jabari tribe are, once again, not happy with the young, new ruler (played by Chadwick Boseman).
“A lot of the writers who did some of the most interesting work around the character, they treated Wakanda like a truly African country,” Coogler said. “When you go to countries in Africa, you’ll find several tribes, who speak their own languages, have their own culture, and have distinct food and way of dress. They live amongst each other, and together they make the identity of those countries. That’s something we tried to capture. We wanted it to feel like a country, as opposed to just one city or town.”
M’Baku has a grievance with T’Challa, but he and his followers were equally unsettled by the previous king, T’Challa’s father T’Chaka — who was assassinated in Captain America: Civil War after trying to engage with the world beyond the closed-off, technological paradise of Wakanda.
“In M’Baku’s worldview, T’Chaka made a huge mistake going to the U.N.,” Moore says. “‘We should never engage with the outside world. That’s a terrible mistake. And if his son is anything like his father, I don’t support him being on the throne.’”
He has a better suggestion for king: himself. “Politically, he just has different ideology,” says Moore, who compares the mountain tribe to one of the deadly rival “five families” in The Godfather. “Man-Ape is a problematic character for a lot of reasons, but the idea behind Man-Ape we thought was really fascinating. … It’s a line I think we’re walking, and hopefully walking successfully.”
In addition to the portrait above, we’ve seen only a brief glimpse of Duke as M’Baku in the trailer, holding someone aloft in what looks like a merciless but powerful gesture. (It’s not clear who the captive is, but his garb is similar to the Border Tribe, which protects the secrets of Wakanda from the outside world.)
“In this movie, it’s a little tricky to define who’s a [good guy],” Coogler says. “The film very much plays with those concepts, looking at conflicts and different motivations, and who’s with who. M’Baku is a really interesting character, and I’m excited for people to get to see him.”
Black Panther opens Feb. 16.