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Great Apes: 8 of pop culture's wildest gorillas

Contributed by
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Matthew Funk
Mar 13, 2017

Gorillas have captured the human imagination for a very long time, perhaps more than any other primate. Surely a large part of the fascination comes with the territory of being one of our closest animal relatives, but our fictions have painted them in a number of contradictory ways that show that our admiration runs deeper than simple genetic proximity.

Some gorillas are rendered as primal symbols of destructive power, some as peaceful, caring creatures. Some put their wondrous intelligence on display, some portray them simply as “dumb apes.” But that’s enough of me channeling my inner David Attenborough, let's get down to monkey business.

With the god of the apes scaling box offices in Kong: Skull Island, like he's done so many times since he first captivated audiences in 1933, it's a perfect time to look back at his other fictional kin who have made us laugh, cry and beat our chests over the years. These eight gorillas from video games, cartoons, comics and movies are prime (or should that be "primate"?) examples of the greatness that gorillas bring to entertainment in all mediums.

Of course, there are sure to be whole planets full of apes that we missed, so if you have a favorite gorilla you think was overlooked, be sure to go bananas in the comments section below.

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Optimus Primal

A couple years ago someone asked me what my favorite animal was, and I answered how I had answered since I was four years old: "Either a cheetah, a rhino, or a silverback gorilla." And it was at that moment that I realized that the only reason I'd been answering that way for last 20 years was because I really, really, loved Beast Wars as a kid.

For you poor souls who don’t know, Beast Wars was the primary cartoon in the Transformers franchise in the mid-to-late '90s, wherein the Autobots were called Maximals, and they didn't transform into cars, they transformed into animals. Their leader, Optimus Primal, naturally transformed into an awesome silverback gorilla. He had a few different forms over the course of the series (gotta sell those toys!) that got more mechanical as they evolved, including one that had a hoverboard attached to his feet. That's right: hoverboarding gorilla Optimus Prime. Why he ever went back to being a truck is a mystery to me.

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Gorilla Grodd

Undoubtedly the most recognizable gorilla in any comic book universe is Gorilla Grodd. A long-time foe of The Flash, Grodd is a super-intelligent, telepathic and telekinetic gorilla, granted his impressive mental abilities by either a meteor or a crashed alien ship or a mad scientist from the future, depending on the comic you're reading or the show you're watching. Regardless, in most tellings of the tale, Grodd and his band of similarly-gifted gorilla brothers and sisters used their abilities to establish a hidden hyper-advanced utopia called Gorilla City, where they lived peacefully for a long time. However, as most hidden cities are, theirs was eventually discovered, and Grodd used the opportunity as an excuse to try to advance his plans for global domination. Instead he was cast out from the peaceful nation — after some assistance from Barry Allen, of course.

Grodd is an iconic villain, and has been a mainstay in Flash and DC Universe stories since he first appeared in 1959, and has gone on to make a number of animated appearances, become a major force on CW’s The Flash TV show, and is set to appear as a playable fighter in this year’s Injustice 2 video game.

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Magilla Gorilla

As evidenced by the last two inclusions on this list, it's hilarious when gorillas wear ill-fitting hats or human neckwear, but Magilla Gorilla is so dedicated to his comedy craft that he did both of those things and put on overalls.

The star of his own self-titled Hanna-Barbera cartoon show, Magilla Gorilla was an unfortunate soul who spent his days wasting away in the window of a pet shop whose owner, Melvin Peebles, desperately wanted him gone. He was purchased by owner after owner who intended to use him in various crimes, get-rich-quick schemes and outrageous plans, only to have them inevitably ruined by the well-meaning beast, who is always returned to the pet shop in the end. It's a tragic tale of a near-man who can never quite find his place in the world, and one that is ripe for a Harambe-inspired DC Comics reimagining.

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Gorilla-Man

Mercenary Kenneth Hale had a death wish, so he decided to chase after the gorilla-themed nightmares he'd been having. This led him to a remote village in Africa with a legend about a 'gorilla man' who lives in the jungle. Ken tracked it down and killed the creature, which passed its curse on to him. From that day forward, Ken has lived as the immortal, gun-toting Gorilla-Man.

Gorilla-Man was a character introduced in the anthology Men's Adventures #26 in 1954 and was later reintroduced into proper Marvel continuity, where he's been featured in a variety of team-ups with everyone from the X-Men to the Avengers as a member of the Howling Commandos and the second incarnation of the Mercs for Money and even in his own miniseries in 2010. He's best known, however, as a member of Jimmy Woo's Agents of Atlas, a team composed of largely forgotten characters published by Marvel's predecessor Timely in the 1950s.

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George

George is one of the three lead characters of the destructively cathartic arcade classic Rampage, along with Ralph the giant werewolf and Lizzie the totally-not-Godzilla. George is a giant ape that's an homage and/or ripoff of King Kong and/or Donkey Kong who had the same penchant for stealing women, climbing tall buildings and wanton destruction as his predecessors. George was originally a scientist who took an experimental vitamin that turned him into a giant gorilla because don't worry about it, it makes sense, okay?

In the game each player takes control of one of the three and lays waste to a series of cities, razing buildings, stomping cars, and doing things you’d generally expect of such giant monsters. However, what sets him apart from the rest of giant gorilla-dom, however, is that he may be played by The Rock. There is currently (and inexplicably) a film adaptation of Rampage in development starring Dwayne Johnson in an unspecified role. I’m personally hoping he plays George, but I do admit it’s hard to imagine The Rock being convincing as a scientist.

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Buck

There are obviously plenty of gorillas in the Planet of the Apes mythology, but the most memorable to me was Buck from Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011). In the movie, Buck is Caesar's first 'convert,' giving his loyalty to him after Caesar figured out how to free him from his cage. Buck then assisted Caesar in asserting his dominance over Rocket, the previous alpha. Buck then played a key role in the apes' escape and their epic battle with law enforcement across the Golden Gate Bridge. It was during this fight that Buck heroically sacrificed himself by leaping onto a helicopter, crashing it and killing the man responsible for the experiments that killed many of the apes, including Caesar's mother. Buck was the faithful muscle of Caesar's army, and his sacrifice was one of the most moving moments of the film. His name come from another gorilla of the franchise: Julius, from the original 1968 Planet of the Apes, who was played by Buck Kartalian.

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Monsieur Mallah

The other DC ape on this list might have brain power, but Monsieur Mallah has an actual brain.

Like in a jar … robot … thing.

Monsieur Mallah is the beret-wearing, machine-gun wielding half of ultra-weird super-villain/romantic partner duo known as Monsieur Mallah and the Brain. The Brain is the single organ that remains of the mad scientist who gave Mallah his genius-level intellect but was soon after caught in an explosion orchestrated by Doom Patrol leader Niles Caulder. The pair are inseparable and have spent most of their existence concocting various mad-science schemes to oppose Caulder and the Doom Patrol, such as stealing the body of Robot Man so they could use it as a body for the Brain, and which Brain used to profess his love for Mallah. That tidbit alone makes Mallah far and away the weirdest gorilla on this list, a title which I hope he holds as proudly as he holds his brain jar.

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Donkey Kong

He's the leader of the bunch, and you know him well. The second most recognizable Kong in the world is probably also flat-out the second most recognizable gorilla in the world. Donkey Kong has been thrilling video game players since 1981 on arcade machines to the Super Nintendo and on every Nintendo console since. He was Mario's original enemy in his barrel-throwing role in the Donkey Kong arcade game and then aged into the elderly Cranky Kong, while his son — who first appeared in Donkey Kong Jr. — grew up to be the star of the Donkey Kong Country series and is the character most fans associate with the name. Whether he's driving a kart, riding a rhino, gathering bananas, banging bongos, winding up his punch or stealing Pauline from Jumpman, this gorilla is one of gaming's greatest icons and one of the greatest apes around.

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