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Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Winston Duke Cast as Man-Ape in Black Panther

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As the first black lead superhero film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it’s safe to say Black Panther has a lot on its shoulders.  The film is already in a weird place, with the character’s origin story already getting laid out in Captain America: Civil War and his archenemy appearing as a bit player in Avengers: Age of Ultron.  Speaking of Civil War, that film’s ending also set-up the issue of the Winter Soldier to be resolved in Black Panther, with the brainwashed bionic assassin interred to Black Panther’s custody until he can get his head screwed on right.  Throw in the looming fact that Black Panther is the last Marvel Phase 3 film before Avengers: Infinity War and it’s starting to seem a bit like the movie might be biting off more than it can chew.  That fact has now been exacerbated by the addition of Man-Ape as the film’s newest and possibly a fourth major bad guy.

Before I launch into the history of Man-Ape, it’s worth noting that there’s a very good reason so many of this film’s villains seem so bizarre and junky.  In case you need a reminder, the two confirmed villains so far are Michael B. Jordan as Killmonger and Lupita Nyong’o as Malice, with Andy Serkis’ Klaw assumed to be involved in some manner.  The big thing to understand about Black Panther is the same issue that plagues a lot of Marvel characters, which is that he doesn’t really have a rogues gallery. 

What this comes down to is structure; with DC Comics, the writers didn’t set out to form an interconnected universe, they just adopted that policy in response to the rise of Marvel.  As a result of this, it was assumed each major DC hero like Wonder Woman, Flash, Batman, Superman, etc. would need an extensive and impressive enough roster of villains to cycle through over several stories.  In Marvel’s case, Stan and Jack actively decided to pursue a shared universe pretty soon after striking gold with the Fantastic Four and part of that inter-continuity was a willingness to share bad guys. 

This meant that once they found a dedicated character to try out villains with like Iron Man or Spider-Man Marvel was fine farming those bad guys out to other characters.  So the lower level guys like Black Panther or Ant-Man don’t have a rogues gallery so much as a rotating collection of other people’s villains with a couple of originals peppered in for variety.  I mean, Black Panther’s archenemy Klaw was originally a Fantastic Four villain that just got grandfathered into the Black Panther mythos more or less out of courtesy. 

Moving on to the curious case of Man-Ape, he’s one of the older Black Panther villains that actually originated with the character and persisted in that mythos.  Real name M’Baku, he’s a native of Wakanda and was considered one of the nation’s greatest warriors until he plotted to overthrow Black Panther and take the country for himself.  The crux of M’Baku’s plan is the outlawed animal worship cult of the White Gorilla, who seek to return to Wakanda to a primitive state.  The cult afforded Man-Ape super powers through a ritual where he basically ate an entire albino Gorilla and now wears its skin as a gruesome costume. 

The big reason Man-Ape has persisted in people’s minds is that he was the Black Panther-centric villain member of the team the Lethal Legion.  Despite the goofy name, the Lethal Legion’s premiere story in Avengers is considered one of the better Avengers stories of the time.  I wish I had more time to devote to the bizarre structure of cornerstone stories in the Avengers mythos but one of the weird things about it is how several stories end up under the umbrella of one larger arc.  

In the case of the lethal legion, it was tied to the addition of the Black Panther to the Avengers line-up in Avengers #52.  At the time Black Panther’s identity and origin was a secret within the comic and wouldn’t be explained till Avengers #87, so a lot of the stories in the interim that have a focus on him become part of that storyline. 

After his big premiere in that run of Avengers issues, Man-Ape settled into the all too common role of cool looking villain that’s not interesting enough to hold down his own storyline.  He’s appeared on numerous incarnations of the Lethal Legion and their sister team the Masters of Evil, and most recently was part of Villains for Hire, a mercenary group run by Jessica Jones’ villain Kilgrave.  

His only other crucial character aspect comes from Marvel’s now defunct Ultimate Comics line.  A lot of Ultimate Comics concepts have filtered into the Marvel Cinematic Universe over the years so it’s worth looking there to see what might inform the upcoming films and in the case of Man-Ape it’s a doozy.  He Ultimate Man-Ape was actually Black Panther’s older brother and was involved in an attempted coup against T’Challa after he failed the trails of the Black Panther during his first try. 

That, more than anything, seems like the real reason we’ll see Man-Ape in Black Panther.  I’ve been guessing at the strings of the plot for awhile now but given what we know and suspect about the film the outline is starting to look pretty clear.  We know that the film has to, in some way, address Civil War’s cliff hanger where Captain America told Black Panther forces would attack Wakanda in an attempt to get at Bucky and we know that Martin Freeman, General Ross’ lapdog in Civil War, will be in the film. 

From there it’s a very short leap to the idea that Black Panther will be about outside forces using Wakanda’s native enemies like Killmonger to stage a coup against T’Challa and install the more outsider friendly Man-Ape as the nation’s new ruler, with Klaw acting as the team’s muscle.  That would be the easiest way to balance the film’s slew of bad guys and actually unite them around a more reasonable purpose- fighting all of Wakanda rather than just the Black Panther himself.

Black Panther is set to premiere February 16, 2018

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