Shang-Chi: Who is the Mandarin? Marvel History Explained

The Mandarin is a classic Iron Man and Marvel villain. How did he end up in Shang-Chi?

As announced at San Diego Comic-Con, the Marvel Cinematic Universe is finally getting around to introducing the REAL Mandarin to moviegoers with Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. This was exciting news for Hall H, but it was also puzzling information: Isn’t the Mandarin an Iron Man villain? Wasn’t he in Iron Man 3? Why are they moving him over to Shang-Chi?  It’s a long-ish story that start in Vietnam and runs through Afghanistan, before it starts its next chapter at Marvel Studios.

The Mandarin Marvel Comics History

The Mandarin was introduced in 1964 by Stan Lee and Don Heck as a mirror held up to his primary foe, Iron Man. It’s important to note two things about this time period:

– America was deep into the war in Vietnam, and getting deeper.

– America had historically and continually been extremely racist towards immigrants from anywhere in Asia (and especially Chinese immigrants – barely 20 years had passed since the act of Congress allowing any Chinese immigration took effect, and it was still a year before Chinese immigration would really take off).

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So the Mandarin was created to draw contrasts with Iron Man, but his character was colored by that historical mistreatment of Asian characters. Tony Stark was the unbridled capitalist technocrat, using his enormous wealth and brilliant science to save the world. So the Mandarin was a Chinese mystic, with magic rings that each do different things to his arch-nemesis. And karate. He did a ton of karate.

In the comics, he stayed roughly that offensive until about when the movies started to take off. The Mandarin shifted around mid-aughts from a karate-knowing Chinese mystic, to a Chinese businessman. He still had the rings, but now he was also trying to infiltrate the US government to bring Stark down from the inside (Stark was Director of SHIELD at the time). And he created a terrorist group that looked strikingly similar to what would eventually show up on film. And then die.

After his death, his rings became like Green Lantern rings, taking on a mind of their own and finding other bearers to continue the fight with Stark, but at that point, they’re so disassociated from his origin as to be functionally different characters. He recently popped back up in the pages of The Punisher, but it’s far too early to tell what version of the character we have in front of us.

The Mandarin in the MCU

Don’t think of Iron Man as the first movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Think of it as the first movie in Phase 2 of the Forever War.

Iron Man and Iron Man 3 are fascinating cultural time capsules in a way that the rest of the MCU is not. Freed from the constraints and responsibilities of a shared cinematic universe, Iron Man‘s sole responsibility was to update a character from the ’60s and make him interesting for modern audiences. To do that, the movie’s creators reached into the cultural zeitgeist as much as they reached into the comic back catalogue. So they cast Robert Downey, Jr. as a reckless playboy with substance issues. They recast his origin from Vietnam to Afghanistan. And instead of Yellow Peril sterotype the Mandarin battling him, we get Al Qaeda (or “alcaida,” as our idiot president’s staff spells it) stand-in the Ten Rings. So we really just moved from one stereotype to another.

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Iron Man 3 came out five years and a whole cinematic movement later. It debuted a few weeks after the 10-year anniversary of Iraq 2, and coincidentally featured the Mandarin as an actor hired by a weapons manufacturer to pose as a global terrorist to goose sales. In this, the Mandarin was really British pothead actor Trevor Slattery, and he was sent to the hoosegow for his role in Aldrich Killian’s plot. This movie even moreso than the first two (where the villains are capitalist weapons manufacturers) is extremely distrustful of the system, and makes the Mandarin a cog in that system rather than a villain in his own right.

Later, in All Hail the King, it’s revealed that the Ten Rings from the first movie is led by the real Mandarin, and he’s not pleased with Trevor’s portrayal.

Why is the Mandarin in Shang-Chi?

Obviously because they think they can do it without screwing it up. Jon Favreau, Robert Downey Jr., and Shane Black were probably not the correct choices for creating a culturally sensitive, nuanced depiction of a problematic, often stereotypical villain.

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The big differerence between the Iron Man movies and Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is who’s behind the camera: David Callaham, the movie’s writer, is Chinese-American. Destin Daniel Cretton, the director of Shang Chi,is Japanese-American. Tony Leung, playing the Mandarin in the movie, is one of the most celebrated Hong Kong actors of all time. This is a creative team that has the knowledge and skill to subvert the racism inherent in the character and put someone on screen with depth.

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