The Marvel Cinematic Universe’s fourth phase is an eclectic mix of supporting characters leading their own television shows and some genuinely unexpected characters debuting in their own films. And even though Guardians of the Galaxy should prove the studio can make stars out of any obscure Marvel hero, some may still be scratching their heads about September’s Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.
With a teaser trailer finally out, some may understand why Marvel fans are excited. But if you need further clarification, let’s take a look at everything we know about the film to suss out why Shang-Chi’s introduction to the MCU is highly anticipated.
(Photo by Jim Cheung/Marvel Comics)
Created by writer Steve Englehart and artist Jim Starlin in 1972, the character was part of wave of martial arts heroes both of the Big Two comic book publishers introduced as they themselves became aware of the martial arts films playing in New York theaters at the time. But in Shang-Chi’s case, the story is more involved, as Marvel was looking to publish a series based on the popular Kung Fu series. That program, owned by what was then called Warner Communications, was itself allegedly based on a concept from legendary martial arts film star Bruce Lee – although the origin of Kung Fu, which starred David Carradine as a half-Chinese monk roaming the Old West, is a subject of much debate. One thing seems clear, though: Lee was considered for the lead role but rejected because the television networks believed viewers would never watch a Chinese actor as the star.
Unable to secure the deal, Marvel turned around and acquired the rights to author Sax Rohmer’s pulp novel villain Fu Manchu and tasked Englehart and Starlin with creating a new main character, Shang-Chi, to play the protagonist in the struggle with the villain. As it happens, the two would also turn out to be father and son.
Debuting in 1973’s Special Marvel Edition #15, he would take over the title completely when it was renamed The Hands of Shang-Chi: Master of Kung Fu two issues later. Other than Shang-Chi, much of the book’s cast was comprised of established characters from Rohmer’s novels. The series ran until issue #125 in 1983. He would continue to appear in crossovers, one-shots, team-up books like Agents of Atlas, and miniseries across the years. A special “Issue #126” of the original series was released in 2017.
Sometime after 1983, though, Marvel’s deal to use Fu Manchu expired. As a character wholly owned by Marvel, Shang-Chi’s origins began to morph. Members of his family were renamed and re-imagined while other Rohmer characters simply disappeared from the Marvel Universe.
Nevertheless, there are two important takeaways from Shang-Chi’s comic book history: he is a proven success, and his origins were always ripe for a feature film. He is born of the martial arts film tradition, after all.
Also, keep his father in mind. That’s going to matter later.
(Photo by ©Warner Bros. courtesy Everett Collection)
Shang-Chi’s prospects in film reach back as far as the 1980s, when Stan Lee reached out to Bruce Lee’s widow, Linda Lee Cadwell, and son, Brandon Lee, about the latter potentially starring in a Shang-Chi film or TV series. Sadly, the younger Lee’s life was cut short on the set of The Crow in 1993. In 2001, Blade director Steven Norrington was signed to direct The Hands of Shang-Chi, but was replaced by martial legends Yuen Woo-ping when the project moved to Dreamworks in 2003. A year later, the rights reverted to Marvel Entertainment and held in reserve for the newly formed Marvel Studios. In 2005, it was listed among 10 potential films the studio would produce for Paramount.
Then the Infinity Saga happened, delaying films like Shang-Chi and Ant-Man far beyond the initial slate.
In 2018, Marvel Studios fast-tracked the project because it wanted to feature an Asian lead after the success of both Black Panther and Crazy Rich Asians. David Callaham (The Expendables, Wonder Woman 1984) quickly signed on to write the feature and Destin Daniel Cretton (Short Term 12, Just Mercy) emerged as director in March of 2019. Throughout this phase of development, Marvel kept seeding the message that it wanted Shang-Chi to play in a similar fashion to Black Panther: an Asian (or Asian-American) viewpoint on the Marvel superhero modernizing some of the more dated or stereotypical elements of the character’s 1970s run. Other key crew behind the camera include director of photography Bill Pope (The Matrix, Spider-Man 2), production designer Sue Chan (Colossal), and editor Harry Yoon (Minari).
Production was slated to begin in February of 2020, and though the COVID-19 pandemic delayed things slightly, shooting was completed on October 24th of that year.
(Photo by Marvel Studios)
Simu Liu (Kim’s Convenience) will make his Marvel debut as Shang-Chi, and from the teaser, we discover he is the son of Wenwu (Tony Leung), a man who has given his child 10 years to “live his life” in San Francisco. Among his friends are Katy (Awkwafina), a hotel porter unaware of his training or life with Wenwu, and Jon Jon (Ronny Chieng). Of course, from the bus attack glimpsed in the preview, they are about to learn that Shang-Chi is a very skilled martial artist and scion of the Ten Rings organization.
The group will go on a journey as Wenwu’s attempts to bring his son back into the fold intensify. Also, according to some rumors, the “Ten Rings” of the title may be alien artifacts Wenwu uses to maintain control of the Ten Rings group known to people like Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson).
Other cast members include Michelle Yeoh as Jiang Nan – her second MCU character after Aleta Ogord in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 — Fala Chen as Jiang Li, and Meng’er Zhang as Shang-Chi’s sister Xialing. Dallas Liu will also appear in an undisclosed role.
(Photo by Zade Rosenthal/©Walt Disney Pictures)
Of course, one of the most intriguing elements of Shang-Chi is the update to his famous parentage. Instead of Fu Manchu, a character steeped in “yellow peril” stereotypes, Wenwu takes his cues from Marvel Comics villain the Mandarin – a character long-teased in the Iron Man film series.
While such a revelation would normally be a spoiler, Marvel was surprisingly open about Leung playing The Mandarin when he was first announced for the film in 2019. Our guess here, supported by the teaser: the film is less about Shang-Chi discovering the truth about his father than it is him coming to grips with what the Mandarin and the Ten Rings really mean for him and the world at large.
If you’ll recall, the Ten Rings were introduced in the first Iron Man — they were the group responsible for Tony Stark’s capture in the desert. He eventually made the Mark I Iron Man suit and escaped. Much of the subsequent film saw Tony dismantling their operations in the Middle East. They would also aid Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke) in Iron Man 2.
The Mandarin himself seemingly surfaced in Iron Man 3 as part of new terror campaign. It eventually turned out that “The Mandarin” was a struggling British actor named Trevor Slattery (Ben Kingsley) and that the plot was orchestrated by Killian Aldrich (Guy Pearce) to cover up his own failed experiments. Subsequently, Slattery was abducted from his prison block by real Ten Rings agents, as seen in the Marvel One-Shot short “All Hail the King” on the Thor: The Dark World Blu-ray release.
(Photo by Marvel Studios)
And for many, finally seeing the Mandarin and the Ten Rings in full form is worth the price of admission alone. But tying Shang-Chi to the character also opens up a lot of new avenues for conflict and pathos. According to Cretton, the dangling element of Shang-Chi’s father – in the comics, an immortal villain called Zheng Zu replaced Fu Manchu — allowed him to reimagine the Mandarin as a much more complex and layered character than typically seen during his heyday in the pages of Iron Man.
In fact, we’ll go out on a limb and suggest it took all this time to get the Mandarin on screen because he can easily become a stereotype himself.
But he’s not the only Marvel character debuting in the film. As seen in the teaser, Shang-Chi will face Razor Fist (Florian Munteanu) during that bus attack. The character is something of a Marvel martial arts mainstay, first appearing in a 1975 issue of the Shang-Chi comic, then called Master of Kung Fu, as an assassin with blades for hands. A subsequent set of characters – twins who both lost a hand in a car accident and replaced them with blades – adopted the name. No matter who currently holds the Razor Fist title, it is their destiny to fight with Shang-Chi, although it usually happens because someone pays them to do so. It is unclear if this is the case with the movie’s Razor Fist, though. He may merely be a test of Shang-Chi’s skills as Wenwu prepares to call him home.
(Photo by Marvel Studios)
Additionally, the teaser features a very brief glimpse of Death Dealer. The character, a later addition to Shang-Chi in 1982, was an agent of Fu Manchu embedded within MI:6. When his true loyalty came to light, the supervillain anointed him with a new costume. Like Razor Fist, he may just be another one of the bold opponents Shang-Chi will face as his journey takes him from San Francisco to other spots on the globe. But considering Death Dealer’s distinctive mask, it’s hard not to imagine he will become the key antagonist as Shang-Chi and Wenwu’s relationship changes.
Originally set to debut on February 12, 2021, Disney first moved it to May 7 as the pandemic began a cascade effect of delays. It then moved again to July 9 as part of a further shift of release dates, and just when things seemed to settle, Black Widow took the July 9 date. As of now, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is set for release on September 3, 2021.
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings opens on September 3, 2021.