Know Your Marvel Movies: Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings
For all its struggles over the decades, Marvel Comics always led by example in one capacity. The company took inspiration from Star Trek and introduced an international cast, adding nuance to the characters.
In recent years, these decisions have paid dividends for the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), as international box office has quietly anchored Disney’s film division. The MCU will soon test whether the reverse is true, as an international cast will play all the lead roles in an upcoming release. But that’s not even the most significant story this time! Here’s everything you need to know about Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.
Who Is Shang-Chi?
Anyone unfamiliar with this character can easily catch up. Imagine Bruce Lee as a superhero. Okay, now you’re up to speed.
I joke, …but only a little. In the comics, the character of Shang-Chi frequently wears those cool tracksuits that Bruce Lee and, later, The Bride popularized. So, his style has remained the same since his introduction.
Marvel created Shang-Chi in 1973, back when David Carradine’s eastern mysticism was in vogue. Carradine (somehow) starred as a Shaolin Monk on ABC’s Kung Fu, which ran from 1972-1975. So, the timing of Shang-Chi’s arrival has always seemed suspect. We can be honest about it. He was a knock-off at first.
However, Kung Fu ended 45 years ago. Modern audiences have no idea what it was. Meanwhile, Shang-Chi became a member of The Avengers in 2013, 40 (!) years after his debut. So, he’s a recent superhero with a terrific backstory.
Originally, Shang-Chi’s superpower was that he was the best martial artist on the planet. Now, he’s also capable of creating multiple Shang-Chis that can go around whupping a lot of thugs simultaneously. Presumably, he won’t have that ability at the start of the movie, but he could develop it by the end.
During the earliest comics, Marvel connected Shang-Chi to Fu Manchu, the legendary movie and television villain. When you think mad scientists with evil plans, you’re describing Fu Manchu quite well. Oh, and he has that unforgettable Fu Manchu mustache, too.
Trivia note: that Fu Manchu mustache didn’t come from the books! It was added later to make the character more distinguished in the movies. But the Shang-Chi movie may not even mention the character…
What Are the Ten Rings?
Marvel lost the rights to Fu Manchu a long time ago. The character has since passed into the public domain, but someone owns the trademark. Disney could easily pay those rights if desired, but Marvel has since carved out a different niche for Shang-Chi. This aspect plays well into the history of the MCU, too.
Folks, I’m about to blow your mind. Disney has laid the groundwork for Shang-Chi and Legend of the Ten Rings going all the way back to the original Iron Man! In fact, the premise played a significant role in Iron Man 3, too!
Do you remember when Tony Stark escaped from that cave? If you go back and watch, you’ll learn that his captors were members of a terrorist group called…the Ten Rings! The leader of that group is a devious warlord named The Mandarin.
Does this ring any bells? It should. The Mandarin played a crucial role in Iron Man 3. Ben Kingsley portrayed a character we believed was The Mandarin before he later revealed that he was just an actor.
Meanwhile, Guy Pearce played Aldrich Killian, the founder of A.I.M. He’s the one that Tony Stark blew off at a party, only to become a powerful tycoon thanks to his mastery of the Extremis virus. His fire-breathing ability and his dragon tattoo hint that Killian is The Mandarin. We’ve since learned that he was just a fan of the history and mythos of the character, though.
In a short film entitled All Hail the King, the MCU confirms that The Mandarin is real…and not that happy with Kingsley’s character. A member of the Ten Rings breaks him out of prison to introduce the actor to his boss.
So, The Ten Rings Is a Gang?
Yes and no. In the MCU to date, the Ten Rings is a gang of sorts or maybe even a cult. They follow The Mandarin unquestioningly, loyal to a fault. But the Ten Rings also refer to something else, at least in the comics.
The Mandarin gained his superpowers due to a spaceship wreck. He stumbled across alien technology and possessed enough intellect to utilize it for his needs. He harnessed the power of the pieces into small pieces of jewelry, rings.
The villain wears 10 different rings, each of which possesses an entirely different ability. If you’re getting a Thanos vibe from this, you should. The two enemies of Iron Man share similar traits. To an extent, The Mandarin is the street-level (well, planet-level) version of Thanos. However, he’s just as devious and driven, like Thanos at an earlier point in life.
So, the Ten Rings serve under The Mandarin, and Marvel’s hinting that Shang-Chi may be the supervillain’s son. At least, Shang-Chi will believe that. It may also become true, as removing Fu Manchu from Shang-Chi’s canon solves a lot of potential headaches. Many Marvel fans in Asia (and other parts of the world) bristle at the stereotypical nature of Fu Manchu.
Plus, The Mandarin as Shang-Chi’s father provides more storytelling opportunities both now and in the future of the MCU.
The Plan for Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings
I’m not going to talk about the story as much in this edition of Know Your Marvels. It’s because if I speak about it in detail, I’ll give away spoilers. Unfortunately, the only bit I can discuss is vague.
Shang-Chi will spend the movie fighting members of his own family, albeit some that he doesn’t really know. Along the way, he’ll develop relationships with the people who assist him during the struggle. These people will become Shang-Chi’s real family over time. It’s a generic description, I know.
Marvel will use Shang-Chi to reveal the history of the Ten Rings and its mysterious leader, The Mandarin. Along the way, Marvel will flex its action muscle with some dazzling fight sequences starring some of the greatest action heroes in Asia. Speaking of which…
About the Cast: The Leads
Disney’s cast Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings authentically. The entire cast claims Asian heritage or lives in an Eastern country to this day.
The star is Simu Liu, whom you may know from Kim’s Convenience. It’s a breakout Canadian series that does very well on Netflix. Liu’s an inspired choice as the first Asian to play the lead in an MCU movie. He actually has worked as a stuntman for Heroes: Reborn before earning acting gigs on the TV version of Taken and the final season of Orphan Black.
The other star of the film is much more recognizable, especially to fans of Hong Kong cinema. Tony Leung Chiu-Wai has appeared in international blockbusters and awards darlings like In the Mood for Love and Lust, Caution, both of which received North American releases, too.
Leung also starred in the Infernal Affairs franchise, one of the most popular Chinese stories ever. Americans know it for a different reason, as Martin Scorsese’s remake, The Departed, won an Academy Award for Best Picture. Leung’s legitimately one of the greatest actors in the world and is long overdue to break out in North America. His casting is nothing short of a masterstroke for the MCU.
About the Cast: The Co-Stars
At the moment, there’s only one other person of note in the film. Even by MCU standards, Marvel has maintained radio silence about the cast. Still, the one person that we know has become one of the hottest performers in the industry today.
At the start of 2018, few people knew who Awkwafina was. When she got cast in Ocean’s Eight, some folks might have recognized her from a small role in Neighbors 2: Sorority’s Rising, a moderately successful sequel. More than anything, people joked about the ridiculous spelling of her name.
Nobody’s laughing now.
After a terrific turn in Ocean’s Eight, Awkwafina became the scene-stealing sensation in Crazy Rich Asians, one of the most surprising blockbusters of 2018. She followed that up with an unheralded lead role in The Farewell, a small indie film.
The actress delivered such a star turn in that film that many analysts expressed outrage that she didn’t earn an Academy Awards nomination. Awkwafina “settled” for a Golden Globe in the Best Actress category. At the age of 31, she’s already the ONLY woman of Asian descent to win a Golden Globe in either Best Actress category.
Awkwafina was already a star at the end of 2018. In 2020, she’s arguably the most popular Asian female actress working in North America. She’s also someone who has done something that Michelle Yeoh, Gong Li, Ming-Na Wen, Zhang Ziyi, and Constance Wu haven’t done in winning that Golden Globe. Awkwafina’s presence as the (presumed) female lead elevates this MCU title a great deal.
In a way, the daring of this project rivals Black Panther. Many of the primary performers in the film are unknowns, and social media cynics will decry the casting as pandering to other international markets, particularly China. It’s the same criticism that the live-action remake of Mulan has faced.
However, Disney’s selected a fascinating character to feed a supervillain that the studio has built up for a dozen years. Throughout storytelling, people have loved heroes more when they HATE the villain. And that’s what happened with Black Panther, as Killmonger’s nightmarish reign of terror led to his cousin’s ascension.
The same pieces are in place for Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. With Tony Leung on board as the fabled bad guy, The Mandarin, people will root for anyone to stop him. And that’s apparently going to be Shang-Chi.
So, this film could surprise. I’m not saying to expect another Black Panther-type performance, as that’s a once-a-generation thing, but I do expect another MCU blockbuster.