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Shang-Chi, the Mandarin, and the Ten Rings, explained by Marvel history

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Marvel Studios triumphantly returned to Hall H at San Diego Comic-Con 2019 to unveil project after project in its post-Endgame, Phase 4 lineup. Chief among those films and TV series was Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, the MCU’s first film to feature a protagonist of Asian descent.

It’s been a long road from comics to screen for this particular Marvel project. The publisher’s first attempts to make a Shang-Chi movie date back to the 1980s, and Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings was originally slated for a Feb. 12, 2021 release date to coincide with the first day of the Chinese New Year, but pandemic-related delays shifted the release date three times.

But with the release of its first trailer, Disney seems confident that the Destin Daniel Cretton (Short Term 12)-directed movie — starring Simu Liu as Shang-Chi and Tony Leung as his father, Wenwu, known as “the Mandarin” — will finally hit theaters on Sept. 3, 2021.

You might think you remember the Mandarin as the villain of Iron Man 3, and you might think you remember the Ten Rings terrorist network from Iron Man. But Shang-Chi is offering a distinct new take on these threads from the Marvel Cinematic Universe tapestry. If you’ve never heard of Shang-Chi, the Master of Kung Fu, before, we’re here to help.

Kevin Feige, director Daniel Cretton, and actor Simu Liu announce the Shang-Chi movie at SDCC 2019
Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images for Disney

Who is Shang-Chi?

When the kung fu craze came to America in the 1970s, Marvel Comics wanted in on the action. First, the company tried to license the Kung Fu TV series, but Warner, which owned DC at the time, turned them down. Marvel was more successful in its acquisition of the rights to the notorious pulp villain Fu Manchu, and in 1973, Steve Englehart and Jim Starlin created Shang-Chi as a way to establish Fu Manchu as a villain in the Marvel Universe. Shang would be a heroic young hero standing against his criminal father.

In his childhood, which was spent learning martial arts, Shang thought his father was a humanitarian. But in an encounter with Manchu’s nemesis, Sir Denis Nayland Smith, he learned the truth. Throughout the ’70s and ’80s, Shang-Chi thwarted his father’s schemes and fought his siblings in The Hands of Shang-Chi: Master of Kung Fu. After reuniting with Sir Denis, he went on several globetrotting adventures as an MI6 agent and later helped found his own spy agency, Freelance Restorations, Ltd. With the help of Freelance agents, Shang finally saw Fu Manchu die, after which he retired and decided to live a simple life.

This didn’t last long. Over the years, Shang-Chi would become an MI6 agent again, fight his resurrected father, quit the spy game entirely, and join the new Heroes for Hire. Later, he’d become a member of the Secret Avengers and be tasked with preventing the Shadow Council from resurrecting his father, which resulted in the villain’s permanent death. During his time with the Avengers, Shang learned his father wasn’t actually Fu Manchu, but an ancient sorcerer named Zheng Zu who had taken the Manchu identity. (In other words, Marvel had lost the Fu Manchu rights.)

In recent years, Shang-Chi has worn many hats. He became a member of the main Avengers team just for the fun of it, had a fling with the X-Men character Domino, and at one point gained the power to create copies of himself after being exposed to cosmic radiation. Along with several other Asian heroes such as Ms. Marvel and Silk, he became a member of the hero team called the Protectors. He joined a new, all-Asian team of Marvel superheroes, alongside Amadeus Cho, Silk, White Fox, Jimmy Woo, and many more, in Greg Pak and Nico Leon’s New Agents of Atlas — and got his own solo miniseries from Gene Luen Yang and Dike Ruanand another earlier this year.

Shang-Chi will battle The Mandarin

In his solo film, Shang-Chi will go up against his own father, Wenwu/the Mandarin, played by Hong Kong cinema legend Tony Leung.

The Mandarin made his comics debut in 1964’s Tales of Suspense #50, the work of Stan Lee and Don Heck. Born in mainland China shortly before the Communist revolution, the Mandarin grew up studying about science and combat — and that was all before he found the crashed ship of a dead alien dragon (seriously) known as a Makluan. By studying Makluan science, he learned how to use ten powerful rings from the ship.

The Mandarin’s ten literal rings, from Marvel Comics.

Do not get punched by the Mandarin.
Marvel Comics

In his supervillain career, the Mandarin tried to conquer the world several times, becoming Iron Man’s most famous enemy after repeatedly trying to use Tony Stark’s technology to further his goals. Springing from the same Orientalist trope stock as Fu Manchu, several of his storylines involved China and Chinese lore — or a misconception of the culture. He had a castle in China, and a giant dragon named Fin Fang Foom under his command. One time, the Mandarin was cursed with dragon claws for hands after refusing to give his Rings back to the eight alien dragons who originally owned them.

Isn’t the Mandarin fake?

The Marvel Cinematic Universe has only used the Mandarin and the Ten Rings — which in the movies are not literal jewelry but a terrorist network — sparsely. In the very first MCU movie, Iron Man, the Ten Rings collaborated with Obadiah Stane to kidnap Tony Stark. Iron Man 3 courted controversy with its update of the didn’t-age-well comics villain; seemingly casting Ben Kingsley in the role, only to reveal that he was actually playing Trevor Slattery, an actor hired to pretend to be the Mandarin at the whims of the true villain, Guy Pearce’s Aldrich Killian. It seemed as if the MCU version of the Mandarin was a mere fiction.

The Ten Rings in Iron Man (2008)

The Ten Rings in Iron Man (2008)
Marvel Studios

But at the end of the Marvel One-Shot All Hail the King, a member of the Ten Rings broke Trevor out of prison, and told him that the real Mandarin wanted to talk to him. From the sound of things, he didn’t seem too happy about a pretender tarnishing his reputation.

That wasn’t the last time we saw the Ten Rings, either, thanks to a deleted scene in 2015’s Ant-Man. When the film’s baddie Darren Cross is trying to sell his Yellowjacket armor, a Ten Rings member with a barely concealed tattoo is present during the buy. Neither the Mandarin nor the Ten Rings have been in any other movie since then.

Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige has said that one of the purposes of the All Hail the King short was to establish the possibility that a more comics-accurate version of the iconic villain does exist in the MCU. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings confirms that. But exactly what the legend of the Mandarin is will have to wait for when Shang-Chi hits theaters in fall 2021.

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