One of BLACK PANTHER’s strengths as a film is that it doesn’t discount the arguments of many of its characters, even the villain. Something that stood out to me was BLACK PANTHER’s allowance for differing stances while remaining on good terms. BLACK PANTHER doesn’t feel the need to label every single person who disagrees with the protagonist as a villain. I think this shows well in the storylines of M’Baku and W’Kabi.

Opposing the King

These two men are far from the only characters that oppose T’Challa in the movie. BLACK PANTHER has plenty of women that are outspoken about their opinions as well. Notably, Nakia stands out as someone who challenges T’Challa’s thought process about keeping Wakanda a secret in the first place. However, it would’ve been easy for BLACK PANTHER to make W’Kabi and M’Baku villains based on the roles that they play.

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BLACK PANTHER decided to make more out of these characters than reducing them to secondary antagonists, however. This decision didn’t only allow Erik Killmonger to shine as a solo villain but allowed for some refreshing writing. W’Kabi and M’Baku are in positions that usually belong to villains: the traitor, and the leader of an “opposing” tribe.

M'Baku W'Kabi

However, these characters get to exist as more than that. W’Kabi is a close friend of T’Challa with understandable motivations. His decision to side with Killmonger is comparable to Okoye’s decision to not run with Nakia and the others. M’Baku is a strong, multi-faceted leader who both challenges and assists T’Challa on his own terms.

Neither man falls into the role of “villain” in the movie. I’d likely be suspicious of someone who did try to label either character as such. Instead, these characters’ arcs speak to how choices are not life sentences, even if those choices weren’t necessarily the right ones. In fact, a lot of the narrative speaks to how “right” and “wrong” choices are not so cut and dry.

M’Baku

M’Baku is notable because he was a villain in the comics. Many people—including Winston Duke—have noted that M’Baku’s character in the comics actually stood out as a racist caricature. The comics called M’Baku “Man-Ape,” and portrayed him as a mindlessly violent character.

Instead, BLACK PANTHER gives us a man who is intelligent, thoughtful in his opposition to the king, kind, and…well, funny. M’Baku shows an endearing sense of humor in his interactions with Agent Ross (although Agent Ross seemed decidedly less appreciative), going from an imposing figure to carefree in a fit of giggles at his own joke.

M'Baku W'Kabi

M’Baku develops over the course of the movie, as well, which is part of what makes his character so interesting. The development isn’t so much a change as it is the audience spending more time with the character, which also feels nice. Our introduction to M’Baku is only the challenge against T’Challa. His derision of Wakandan culture and his choice to finally yield to the Jabari people in mind make a strong first impression.

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However, if M’Baku had only been in that one scene, he would have only been a secondary antagonist. Instead, we get to see more of him. BLACK PANTHER shows us that this man willing to fight the king of Wakanda over his values is also willing to save him for the same reasons.

Depth of Character

The film gradually revealing M’Baku’s character to the audience felt like a choice directly influenced by the comics. When the film introduces M’Baku, it’s in a way that could amount to people writing him off as a bloodthirsty warrior. His negative comments about Shuri leading Wakanda’s technological advancements seem custom-tailored to make the audience upset. After all, who doesn’t love Shuri?

Seeing M’Baku later save T’Challa’s life is almost a lesson to the audience. BLACK PANTHER sets us up to be wrong about M’Baku. It forces us to face the fact that we have assumed that this man — notably a large black man, because that matters — was nothing more than a bullheaded fighter, despite only knowing him for a short time.

M'Baku W'Kabi

When M’Baku refuses to join the battle to reclaim T’Challa’s throne, the audience has a better grasp on his character. His decision to not join the conflict is respectable. However, at the same time, the film has equipped us with the knowledge that M’Baku is, well, a bit of a softy. The audience is set up to suspect that M’Baku will help T’Challa out again…and he does.

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The depth of character that the BLACK PANTHER creators gave M’Baku is fantastic. Winston Duke has even spoken on the fact that the Jabari, as the mountain tribe, still worship Hanuman, a monkey god, and how to avoid racist caricatures in reference to that. BLACK PANTHER made M’Baku into much more than he was in the comics.

W’Kabi

W’Kabi’s role is interesting in very different ways. The film lets us know W’Kabi as a warrior, but also as a friend and lover. He’s clearly close friends with T’Challa, and he is romantically involved with Okoye. BLACK PANTHER shows W’Kabi is a multi-faceted man from the get-go. While we don’t get to see very much of him, we get a strong sense of many things that are important to him in a short time.

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W’Kabi seems to cement the idea that presenting M’Baku as single-sided when he first shows up was very purposeful. After all, the film is able to let us know that W’Kabi is one of the strongest warriors in Wakanda, a man who cares deeply about his loved ones, and a man who is upset about the loss of his cadets all in a short time. BLACK PANTHER gives us a quick glance of W’Kabi, but it’s detailed enough for us to understand what motivates him.

M'Baku W'Kabi

W’Kabi wants results. From the very start of the movie, W’Kabi wants Klaw dead. He’s unsatisfied with T’Challa’s failure to catch him and even more so with the prospect of Klaw living as a prisoner instead of being executed. W’Kabi is still clearly being led by anger and grief over the loss of members of his tribe, and Killmonger shows up with results T’Challa could not provide him.

While there’s a deleted scene of W’Kabi and Okoye discussing their specific stances on Killmonger, I think what we see of W’Kabi is still enough to understand why he chooses the side he does.

Strength and Emotion

One of the most important moments in W’Kabi’s arc is when he yields to Okoye. W’Kabi’s arc revolves around emotion — anger and impatience drive him to join Killmonger. He’s a warrior who clearly values following his heart. W’Kabi sees no issue in sentencing Klaw to death because of his emotional investment in the situation. No one in the film sees this as a weakness on his part.

W’Kabi ultimately yields because of emotion as well. Facing Okoye makes him reconsider his position on the battlefield. While, yes, some of that was likely due to the fact that Okoye could wipe the floor with him, it’s still a fantastic, emotionally charged moment. It’s been noted by many people that having a man willingly yield to a woman because of her love of her is something nice to see, as well.

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If W’Kabi’s character arc relies on the importance of his emotion, it also relies on how he grounds his strength in emotion and relationships. Ultimately, he allows his emotions of love and trust to trump the anger that drove him to join Killmonger. BLACK PANTHER portraying W’Kabi as strong because he chooses not to fight and because he values his positive relationships is incredibly meaningful.

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BLACK PANTHER telling these stories matters because it allows the story to encompass many truths. The film has many layers, even outside of the main cast. Not only do the creators take time to subvert tropes and racist stereotypes using characters like T’Challa, Shuri, and Nakia, but they lend this amount of care to secondary characters as well.

The way BLACK PANTHER recreates M’Baku from what he was in the comics is amazing. Allowing him to be so much more than a villain has made him truly shine as a character. The film allows him to be powerful, opinionated opposition to T’Challa without being painting M’Baku as evil and mindless. This is much more representative of real life. People are multi-faceted, and challenging authority doesn’t mark someone as lacking thought or respect.

M'Baku W'Kabi

W’Kabi’s arc is meaningful in the value that it puts on emotion. It’s also amazing to see the creators give us so much of a character who doesn’t have a large amount of screen time. The thought put into creating a scene where a man decides to yield because of love is clear. The narrative doesn’t deride or judge W’Kabi for staking his actions on his emotions. In fact, his emotions are what work to save him at the end.

BLACK PANTHER works hard to address the more difficult realities of life. The film knows well that sometimes there isn’t a hard line between good and evil, and right and wrong can become mixed together a lot of the time. BLACK PANTHER shows that actions don’t doom people to be villains. The characters in the film stand out as multi-faceted. Every step of the way, BLACK PANTHER encourages people, especially black people, to live their realities.

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