SPOILERS are ahead for Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, now playing exclusively in theaters.
Remember that Iron Man 3 Mandarin fakeout? Yeah... that happened. Back in 2013, the Marvel movie led us to believe we’d see the supervillain face off against Robert Downey Jr’s Tony Stark, only to learn that Ben Kingsley’s role was all bells and whistles. The Academy Award winner was not playing a menacing villain. He was nothing but a laughable actor named Trevor Slattery. Eight years later, with the release of Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, Trevor has returned, but more importantly, we've now met the real Mandarin, and it finally does right by the character.
When “The Mandarin” first appeared in the MCU, it became one of the most controversial storytelling decisions the comic book universe made, especially when the far less legendary Aldrich Killian turned out to be the movie's real villain instead. Not unlike Marvel previously making use of the despised Thor: The Dark World in Avengers: Endgame, the character of the Mandarin has been cleaned up with Shang-Chi, and we need to break it down:
How Iron Man 3’s Ben Kingsley Fits Into Shang-Chi
Many of us had an inkling Ben Kingsley might return for Shang-Chi, but to my own surprise, it was much more than a cameo. While Simu Liu and Awkwafina’s characters are in the home of Shang-Chi’s father, they come across Kingsley’s Trevor Slattery, who is hanging out in a dark dungeon-like room, still as jolly as can be despite the conditions. As Trevor explains it, he’s somewhat of a jester to Tony Leung’s Xu Wenwu who often has monologues ready to entertain the leader of the Ten Rings.
Trevor has an adorable friend in the faceless furry DiJiang that he believes is part of his imagination and has named Morris. From there, Trevor Slattery ends up venturing with Shang-Chi, Katy and Xialing to the mystical land of Ta Lo because he is the only one who can communicate with the creature originally from the land. Ben Kingsley’s Trevor continues to be just as funny in Shang-Chi and is welcome thanks to the comedic relief he brings to the adventure.
Who Is The Real Mandarin In The MCU?
Shang-Chi builds upon Iron Man 3's Mandarin fake-out by revealing the real Mandarin to be Tony Leung’s Xu Wenwu, who is also Shang-Chi’s disturbed father. He is a very old character who has been in the fabric of the MCU for thousands of years, with Mandarin being one of his many names over the centuries. Xu Wenwu is the leader of the Ten Rings, an army that toppled governments throughout history. The actual Ten Rings Wenwu wears grant its user immortality and great power, and he uses them storm Ta Lo, as he believes his late wife is still alive there, though we eventually learn her voice is actually coming from the soul-consuming Dweller-in-Darkness, which is basically an all-powerful demon.
Tony Leung’s Wenwu is absolutely the most intriguing character in Shang-Chi. He may be a villain, but he’s one with an established purpose and a lot of humanity and complexity within him. Although as audiences we cannot relate to living thousands of years or recruiting a massive army, we do understand the desire to bring a loved one back and how disillusionment can be dangerous to cloud one’s judgement. Shang-Chi take the opportunity to tell the story of Mandarin in a way that three-dimensional and much deeper than some misguided origins the comics portrayed.
The Origins Of The Mandarin
The Mandarin is a classic Marvel villain who made in comic book debut in 1964's Tales of Suspense #50. The character came from a wealthy Chinese family whose home is taken during the Communist revolution. He discovered the Ten Rings and became an incredibly powerful being and supervillain. However, in the comic books, the Mandarin depicted racist Asian stereotypes, including his plan to destroy the Western world and dominate the globe.
If Marvel had done a straight depiction of The Mandarin, it would have been harmful and offensive to the Asian community. Shang-Chi's Mandarin is depicted as a villain, but one who was changed by love,and then tarnished by loss and power. Oh, and the inclusion of Tony Leung’s Xu Wenwu also allows Marvel to rewrite the origins of Shang-Chi’s father, who was originally Fu Manchu, a character also marked by being a racist Chinese villain. As Leung told Elle, he sees his character as a “sociopath, a narcissist, a bigot” based on a lifetime of experiences rather than a MCU character defined by simply being the bad guy.
Why Uniting Both Mandarin Stories Matters
Marvel Comics has been around since the ‘30s (going back to its Timely Comics roots), and clearly a lot has changed in the past 80 years and will continue to with big-screen depictions of these characters. It’s great to see the MCU tackle these controversies head on, especially with the right creatives behind it. The new “Mandarin” calls out people naming him after a “chicken dish.” It’s something to laugh at while we watch, but though the movie’s Asian creators, director/co-writer Destin Daniel Cretton and co-writer Dave Callaham, they have a chance to take back the story into a more worthwhile story and version of The Mandarin.
Adding in Ben Kingsley was clever because he’s the association audiences had with The Mandarin thus far. Seeing both Trevor Slattery and Tony Leung’s Xu Wenwu in the same movie gives as a chance to remember the Mandarin’s fake-out introduction in Iron Man 3 and connect it with the actual story Marvel wants to told about the character. It also allows the people who were disappointed that Tony Stark never got to have that showdown with Mandarin to find perspective in knowing that Shang-Chi was the absolute right time for the villain to finally get the true MCU treatment.
There are a lot more Marvel introductions to come in 2021 alone with Eternals and Spider-Man: No Way Home, among the upcoming MCU films and shows like Hawkeye and Ms. Marvel coming to Disney+.
YA genre tribute. Horror May Queen. Word webslinger. All her writing should be read in Sarah Connor’s Terminator 2 voice over.
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