Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings Deals With The Mandarin’s Difficult History

The MCU treads warily around one of its more controversial characters in the first trailer for Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, especially now with all the increased attention on diversity in media.

Tony Leung as the Mandarin in Marvel's Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings
Photo: Marvel Studios

In a spectacular Marvel twist, the first Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings trailer confirms a rumor that the film’s director, Destin Daniel Cretton dropped last year: the Mandarin is Shang-Chi’s father.

Typical for the MCU’s shared universe, this plays out well on multiple levels. In the original comics, Shang-Chi’s father was none other than Fu Manchu. Fu Manchu was created by Englishman Sax Rohmer with his pulp fiction book The Mystery of Doctor Fu-Manchu in 1913. It was a stark, racist portrayal of Asians, and Rohmer capitalized upon the ‘Yellow Peril’ xenophobia of the time by milking his Fu Manchu character for a long running serial of over a dozen books. Fu Manchu became the West’s preeminent orientalist villain, a ruthless mad scientist evil genius with a signature mustache. The character was depicted in dozens of films, always portrayed by Caucasian actors with slant eye make-up including Boris Karloff, John Carradine, Christopher Lee, Peter Sellers, and even (in the spoof Grindhouse) Nicolas Cage. Even Ming the Merciless from the Flash Gordon comics was inspired by Fu Manchu. It’s essentially the same character right down to the facial hair, except in space. 

Marvel had a working agreement with the Rohmer estate to use Fu Manchu when Shang-Chi debuted in 1973. That eventually expired so the familial connection between Shang-Chi and Fu Manchu was downplayed later. Naturally, today Marvel needs to avoid reviving a racist stereotype, especially with Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings boasting its diversity with the first Asian MCU superhero. 

Enter the Mandarin

The Mandarin was introduced in the comics in 1964, created by Stan Lee and Don Heck. He was another ruthless mad scientist evil genius, as well as a master of martial arts, and derived his power from ten finger rings based on salvaged technology from an alien spaceship. He was a major adversary of Iron Man, and in the MCU it was Ten Rings terrorists who initially kidnap Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) which inspires him to start creating his suit. The Mandarin also received some accusations of being a racist caricature over the years, although not nearly as bad as Fu Manchu. 

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In the MCU, the Mandarin first “appears” in Iron Man 3, played by Ben Kingsley. The announcement drew early criticism of whitewashing the role, a landmine that the MCU would step on later with Tilda Swinton’s portrayal of the Ancient One in Doctor Strange. However, when Iron Man 3 debuted, it turned out to be another brilliant Marvel twist. Kingsley wasn’t the Mandarin after all. He only played him on TV. Kingsley was actually Trevor Slattery, a naive English actor playing a role, completely unaware that he was a pawn in global terrorism. 

It was a brilliant correction, meta in scope, especially because Iron Man 3 was heavily marketed to China. In fact, China got a different version of the film that included more footage of some of the A-list Chinese actors in the cast like Fan Bingbing and Wang Xueqi. It was a successful play as Iron Man 3 broke the opening day box office record in China at that time. 

So, is Slattery’s Mandarin Shang Chi’s dad? 

Of course not. In a direct-to-video Marvel One-Shot titled All Hail the King Slattery gets interviewed in jail by Jackson Norriss (Scoot McNairy). Norriss hopes to break Slattery out to introduce him to the real Mandarin. Unbeknownst to Slattery, Norriss is a covert agent of the Ten Rings. 

This One-Shot wasn’t a typical end-of-credit MCU scene. It was included on the Blu-Ray edition of Thor: The Dark World. For a while, it could be found on YouTube, however Disney has scrubbed it off streaming platforms for copyright issues. 

The Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings trailer teases the conflict between Shang Chi (Simu Liu) and his father, the Mandarin a.k.a. Wenwu (Tony Leung). Apparently Wenwu is the Mandarin’s alias for the film. The name means “scholar warrior” in Mandarin. It’s a novel moniker for the character suggesting that there will be other changes. The teaser also converts the Mandarin’s ten finger rings into glowing vambraces.  

Tony Leung is a decorated A-lister with nearly a hundred films to his credit. Considered one of the greatest Hong Kong actors of his generation, he won Best Actor at Cannes for In the Mood for Love. His filmography ranges from gritty gangster films like Hard Boiled and Internal Affairs, martial arts epics like The Grandmaster, Ashes of Time, and Hero, and outstanding dramatic collaborations with leading directors like Wong Kar-wai (Chungking Express, 2046) and Ang Lee (Lust, Caution). Like Iron Man 3, Leung’s inclusion is another play for the China market, as is this whole project. In the wake of the pandemic, China surpassed the United States as the most lucrative film market in the world. It’s great casting. If anyone can bring gravitas to the Mandarin, it’s Tony Leung. 

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What Sets Asian Families Apart

Parent-child relationship issues are a persistent theme in Hollywood depictions of Asian families. It can be traced back to The Joy Luck Club, through to Crazy Rich Asians and The Farewell (both featuring Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings costar Awkwafina) and even into The CW’s reimagined Kung Fu TV series. However, it’s fair because the Confucian influence on Asian families is something to be reconciled for any Asian westerner today. 

Liu just came off the beloved Canadian sitcom Kim’s Convenience, which also tackled Asian family dynamics. Liu played Jung Kim whose prevailing story arc was the relationship between him and his father, Mr. Kim (Paul Sun-Hyung Lee). Sadly, the show ended abruptly in Season 5 when their creators moved on, despite already being renewed for a sixth season last year. Now in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, Liu swaps an immigrant dad running a bodega with a ruthless mad scientist evil genius. 

With each new project, MCU is getting wiser about diversity and representation. In their latest project, the underlying racial issues addressed in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier have been on point. With Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, it’s looking like the MCU is going the right direction to correct a racist legacy into something positive. And we can all use more positivity now. 

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is expected to premiere on September 3, 2021.