Marvel’s’ Black Panther’ gets rid of the racism and keeps the story

Marvel Studios BLACK PANTHER
M’Baku (Winston Duke)
Credit: Kwaku Alston/©Marvel Studios 2018

Marvel Comics has a lot of characters with problematic histories. And the more films that Marvel Studios churns out, the more these histories are exposed. There are 2 ways this can be handled: you double down on the bad to remain loyal to the source material or you convert it into something good. And with Black Panther, Marvel finally figured out how to do both, sidestepping the controversy by modernizing a character’s origins.

Since it was first announced, press for Marvel’s Black Panther has been nearly all positive. Chadwick Boseman more than proved his worth for the title role in Captain America: Civil War. Then casting announcement after casting announcement added major star power with Lupita Nyongo, Michael B. Jordan, and Angela Bassett. What we haven’t heard about is the character of M’Baku (played by Winston Duke) who is referred to as Man-Ape in the original comics.

Black Panther made his first appearance in 1966. As the first Black superhero, his book was bound to have problematic elements. And one of his most well-known antagonists and rivals was M’Baku a.k.a. Man-Ape.

That name is offensive for a plethora of reasons, but his appearance managed to be worse. In the comics, he literally wore the skin of an ape, including the face. The goal was obvious, make a villain with the imposing strength of an ape and the menacing appearance to match. But the inherent racism of that connection shows zero concern for Black audiences.

Reimagining Man-Ape

So, how do you fix a Man-Ape sized problem? It’s really simple. You reimagine the character without all the problematic features. Reportedly, M’Baku shows up as an antagonist in the film as one of T’Challa’s rivals. But now he leads a tribe that reveres apes and uses them as a symbol of strength. Instead of wearing a literal ape suit, his clothes have ape-inspired touches (i.e. fur on the shoulders and a bulky chest plate and forearm armor). And of course, you eradicate the name Man-Ape.

The fact that you have two leaders who use animals as symbols of their power (a panther and an ape respectively) helps make this all the more plausible as well.

By adjusting the character in this manner your retain a continuity with the comic books without perpetuating the racist elements of its origins. How Marvel, a company constantly at work modernizing its characters and crafting diverse stories more reflective of the world we live in, didn’t figure this out sooner is perplexing.

What future projects can learn

I can only hope that this is a sign that Disney (Marvel’s parent company) is making actual strides in cultural sensitivity. Because as it stands, every step forward they take with a movie like Moana they take back with castings like the forthcoming live-action Aladdin. Spiderman: Homecoming attempted to adjust its characters to make them more diverse, but stopped short of using an afro-latino Spiderman. Other recent Marvel productions like Iron Fist and Doctor Strange had their own issues with centering white people where they don’t belong.

But fixing these issues is not difficult. It does not even require complete erasure of connections to the original comic book stories. It requires a critical analysis of what is important about a character and what is just plain offensive. It requires filmmakers to push past a desire to be carbon copies of the original source material and be devoted to producing what the comics were meant to represent.

Marvel’s Black Panther had a big potential liability here. But the fact that this news was barely even covered shows how easy it can be to divorce current and future projects from the issues of their source material. This is a model for how future projects should handle characters with problematic origins.

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Daren W. Jackson

Daren is one half of the Water Cooler Convos team. He's a writer, music connoisseur, and comic book geek who spends his free time working on his novel and other short stories.