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Because Marvel Comics started back in the 1940s, certain elements of the canon are reflective of different eras -- and the character of M'Baku a.k.a. Man Ape is one such example. He was first created by John Buscema and Roy Thomas back in 1969, but by modern standards isn't exactly a racially sensitive figure. All the same, he is still an important figure in the history of Black Panther comics, so when it came to including him in the upcoming Marvel blockbuster certain changes had to be made, including the context of his role in the nation of Wakanda. As producer Nate Moore explains it,
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. But the idea of the character that we especially borrowed from the [Christopher] 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.
M'Baku is played by actor Winston Duke in writer/director Ryan Coogler's Black Panther, and it was while visiting the set of the film last year that I first learned about how the film would be including him in the story. Nate Moore was specifically asked about the character during a roundtable interview with a group of journalists including myself, and the Marvel filmmaker explained how they had to do some tip-toeing before finding a proper way to include the potentially offensive antagonist into the movie.
As alluded to by Nate Moore, the nation of Wakanda is very much influenced by its different religious sects -- some more powerful than others. The most significant figure of worship is the Panther God a.k.a. Bast (which obviously inspires the design of the lead Wakandan warrior's costume), but the cat isn't alone. In the comics, M'Baku is the leader of the Jabari tribe, which is a group that prays to Ghekre the Gorilla God as part of the White Gorilla Cult. It would seem that the conflict that exists between the two fellowships on the page will continue to the big screen -- though it's worth mentioning that M'Baku's larger role in the plot of Black Panther has not yet been revealed.
The marketing campaign for Black Panther hasn't let us see much of M'Baku -- the trailers focusing much more on Chadwick Boseman's titular hero and Michael B. Jordan's Erik Killmonger -- but it won't be long until we learn much more. Fans will be able to see Winston Duke's portrayal very soon, as the latest blockbuster from Marvel Studios will be arriving on February 16th.