After a dismal failure at introducing the Mandarin in Iron Man III, Marvel is trying to get it right with their new movie, Shang-Chi: The Legend of the Ten Rings coming to theaters, Sept. 3. As a comic book purist, especially when it comes to movies, this version of the Iron Man supervillain is a better representation of the character instead of the campy Sir Ben Kingsley attempt. But, you need to know the history of this character, as well as Shang-Chi himself, to understand the changes being reimagined for the movies.
“To know that you are superior— in mind, in body, in spirit. That is everything! To know that power is your birthright— to know what untold thousands exist on this world for no reason but to serve you– to channel their powers through your empire, be it of land or of business– channeling it upward to fuel you, to fuel your glory!“—The Mandarin (Marvel Fandom Wiki)
The Mandarin was created in the 1960s as a supervillain for Iron Man at a time when the U.S. was under the “Red Scare” from Communist China, the Soviet Union, etc. Comic book villains reflected the hysteria at the time, so the villains were all tied to the idea of the communist take over of the world. This time period gave us The Mandarin, Red Ghost, Yellow Fang, the Titanium Man, Red Guardian, and yes, even Black Widow. These Asian characters had over-exaggerated features, yellow skin, sharp fingernails, and were portrayed as the epitome of evil. I would call it a holdover from World War II and the animosity toward the Japanese. The Mandarin was no exception.
In the comics, the man that would become the Mandarin was born from an English prostitute in an opium den located within the small village of Habuquan in Inner Mongolia, China, where he spent his entire childhood doing forced labor. Following his mother’s death due to overdose, the Mandarin killed her procurer, whom he figured was his father, and delved into a life of crime. When the communist revolution occurred, he went on the run. While running away, the Mandarin found a cave in the Valley of Spirits that housed the wreckage of an alien spaceship. Becoming transfixed by a set of ten small cylinders spinning in the ship’s engine, the Mandarin took the artifacts. Having found them similar in appearance to rings, the Mandarin started wearing them as such, slowly studying each of them and gaining access to their powers. When the Mandarin first worn them all at once, his mind was reached by the warrior spirits trapped within the rings. These spirits influenced the Mandarin so his ultimate goal in life would be to resurrect them.
Thus began the life of a supervillain that would span the decades. From the Shang-Chi trailers, we know this will partly remain true, i.e. criminal empire, alien rings (on his wrists instead of fingers), but that’s where the similarities end. His rings seem more power-based (force blast similar to Iron Man’s repulsors) than each ring having an individual power, like it is in the comics. This will be a fundamental shift but, for those audiences not familiar with the comics, it will be easier to understand.
“My father has often said to me: ‘A man may not be too careful in his choice of enemies, for once he has chosen… he has forfeited a friend.’ These are words my father has lived by, for he is Fu Manchu, and his life is his word.“—Shang-Chi (Marvel Fandom Wiki)
Then there’s the updated origin for Shang-Chi. Originally created during the Bruce Lee “Kung Fu” craze of the 1970s, this “Master of Kung Fu” has been upgraded from his abilities to his lineage. In the comics, Shang-Chi was born in the Honan province of China, and is the son of Fu Manchu, the Chinese mastermind who has repeatedly attempted world conquest and had a thirst for blood. His mother was a white American woman genetically selected by his father. Shang-Chi was raised and trained from infancy in the martial arts by his father and his tutors. Once he discovered about his father’s evil empire, he broke free and fought Fu Manchu at every turn. Now, it appears, that Fu Manchu is being replaced by the Mandarin in the MCU. That’s not really a big change, as they’re both leaders of criminal empires in China, and with Tony Stark’s Iron Man dead in the MCU, it’s a way of bringing the true Mandarin into the fold.
As fans, we understand that precise interpretations of the comics is impossible. Comic book characters themselves have evolved and changed over the years. You can’t take these characters from the 1960s and 70s, with their racist overtones as originally developed, to the big or little screen. For example, people are clamoring over the Disney+ series where Loki declares himself bisexual. If you read the comics, you knew this was a possibility. I mean, he has gone from man to kid to women on multiple occasions throughout his run. We knew it was coming, but those who never read the comics are screaming “heresy” and “political correctness” at this revelation. Chill out!
If you want something to scream about, the portrayal of the Mandarin in Iron Man III is something to get pissed off at. Again, I have nothing against Sir Ben Kingsley. I love him as an actor and it wasn’t his fault. However, that version of the Mandarin was a joke, an their little one shot was done just to appeased the fans who hated that movie. At least Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings will bring it back to an origin closely resembling these characters. I hope Marvel has learned its lesson in totally revamping these characters for movies.
We all know, from the 24 hour news cycle, that there are issues with China, from the coronavirus to free speech in Hong Kong to the mistreatment of the Uyghurs. That issue is with the Chinese government, not the people of China. They have a rich history which is a big part of the mythology that a fantasy reader, like myself, loves to dive into. Those are the stories that need to be told and Marvel is trying to bring it to life in the MCU.
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Mark Piggott is an independent author of the Forever Avalon fantasy book series and other fantasy novels and short stories. Forever Avalon is available for purchase as a paperback/ebook at Amazon. The Dark Tides: Book 2 of the Forever Avalon Series is available for purchase as a paperback/ebook from iUniverse Publishing and at Amazon, and other booksellers. The Outlander War, Book Three of the Forever Avalon series is available for purchase as a paperback/ebook from Austin Macauley Publishing, and at Amazon and other booksellers. His latest fantasy novel, The Last Magus: A Clockwork Heart is available through Lulu and other booksellers. Get ready for The Prometheus Engine: Book 4 of the Forever Avalon Series, coming soon, and the steampunk historical fiction, Corsair and the Sky Pirates.