WARNING: The following article contains spoilers for Marvel's Black Panther, in theaters now.
When it was announced that M’Baku was going to appear in Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther, instantly questions were raised as to whether it would use the racially insensitive supervillain name he was given in his first appearance in Avengers #62.
Known in the comics as as Man-Ape, the character wears a large white gorilla costume and is the head of a religious order praying to the Gorilla God, Ghekre. As you can see, this could have presented Marvel Studios with a challenge on how to portray a potentially controversial and offensive figure on the big screen. But the film manages to sidestep the insensitive nature of M’Baku, reinventing him in a manner that takes some of the key aspects from his comic counterpart, bringing him into the 21st century.
First, the film completely jettisons the ‘Man-Ape’ title and solely refers to him as M’Baku. He’s the head of the Jabari tribe, the mountainous region of Wakanda. The tribe separated themselves from the rest of Wakandan society long ago, not agreeing with the way they hide in the shadows of the world. But instead of a religious icon, the tribe clearly just see the gorilla as a symbolic figure, taking a cue from the Christopher Priest-scripted Black Panther comic.
“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," Director Ryan Coogler explained. "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.”
Since the Jabari tribe are hidden away in the mountains due to having a different stance on Vibranium, it would make sense that M’Baku would be a villain. But the film takes the time to develop his character arc in an extremely fresh way. M’Baku does not wear a huge white gorilla suit, opting instead for armored plating with tribal markings. Much of his armor is lined with white fur, honoring the past visual nature of M’Baku, and he has a ceremonial gorilla mask that he wears during the beginning of the film.
Initially, the story puts M’Baku at odds with T’Challa as he attempts to oust him from royalty in a challenge of combat during T’Challa’s ascension to the throne, leading you to believe he’s a secondary villain underneath Michael B. Jordan’s Killmonger. But delightfully, the film takes him in an entirely new direction that truly rescues the troublesome nature of his comic book history.