This article contains spoilers for Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.
This year, the Marvel Cinematic Universe became a teenager, and like any adolescent straining for full-fledged adulthood, it’s a little embarrassed by its baby pictures. As the MCU heads into its official fourth phase, it’s reckoning with and rewriting its own history, course-correcting as the cultural winds shift. Black Widow mounted a feminist critique of the way Age of Ultron handled Natasha Romanoff’s forced sterilization. The Falcon and the Winter Soldier unpacked the symbolism of choosing a white man as the ultimate expression of the American ethos. And Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, which serves as an origin story for the first Asian superhero to lead his own Marvel movie, scrolls back and complicates the way 2013’s Iron Man 3 dealt with the comics’ Asian villain, the Mandarin.
When the Mandarin made his first appearance in 1964, it was as a racist Chinese caricature in the pages of Marvel’s Tales of Suspense, a leering villain with a pointed goatee and drooping Fu Manchu moustache. And although the character evolved radically over the decades that followed, even becoming something of a fan favorite, there were still those troublesome origins to reckon with. His existence was hinted at in Iron Man, the movie that launched the MCU, when Tony Stark was kidnapped by a terrorist organization calling itself the Ten Rings. But the group’s leader, the Mandarin, was nowhere to be found. He wouldn’t show up—sort of—until Iron Man 3.
If Iron Man’s decision to reinvent the Ten Rings as Afghan insurgents feels like the product of Hollywood’s tendency to style its villains after whoever the U.S. is at war with at the moment, Iron Man 3’s Mandarin is a more purposeful and aggressive remix of contemporary anxieties. With his long, grizzled beard, the character is styled like a radical Islamic jihadi. He releases elaborately edited propaganda videos like al-Qaida and even appears to murder an American captive during a live broadcast. He speaks with a strong, almost comically nasal American accent, suggesting he’s spent time in the U.S.—a faint echo of the 9/11 hijackers, but one that also contributes to the feeling that the movie is drawing characteristics at random from a bag marked “scary foreign bad guy.”
The twist is that that’s more or less what actually happened. The character of the Mandarin is just that: a character, dreamed up by the movie’s real villain and played by a British actor named Trevor Slattery, who is played in turn by Ben Kingsley. The man who invented the Mandarin, American tech mogul Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce), is a military contractor who’s decided to prolong the war on terror for his own ends, and his version of the Mandarin serves as the perfect boogeyman. Eventually, Iron Man unmasks them both, defeats Aldrich Killian, and sends Trevor off to jail.
Co-screenwriter Drew Pearce explained that Iron Man 3’s use of the “false Mandarin” was “inspired by the reason I couldn’t use the original,” which was that the character was “very much a yellow-peril stereotype with a particularly unsavory edge of propaganda.” But that ingenious metacommentary on the comics’ racial stereotypes still left the MCU with one less leading role for an Asian actor (although it should be noted that Kingsley, whose birth name was Krishna Bhanji, is of Indian descent). In 2014, Pearce wrote and directed a short film called All Hail the King, in which Trevor is kidnapped from prison by a member of the Ten Rings posing as a documentary filmmaker (Scoot McNairy). But though McNairy’s character makes reference to a real Mandarin waiting somewhere in the wings, we never see him, and he still speaks about the Ten Rings’ “beliefs” as if it’s a religious cult. All Hail the King was only available as an extra on the home video release of Thor: The Dark World until it popped up on Disney+ early this week as prelude to Shang-Chi’s neatest trick: the introduction of Tony Leung’s Wenwu, and the return of Trevor Slattery.
Wenwu, who is Shang-Chi’s father, is the leader of an international crime syndicate called the Ten Rings, and he is also the possessor of the ten rings of power, mysterious artifacts of unknown origin which give him superpowers and make him immortal. Wenwu prefers to operate in the shadows, as immortal crimelords are wont to do, but he’s also none too happy that Trevor has been running around the world muddying his good name. He scowls as he tells Shang-Chi about this presumptuous Englishman who tried to embody his legend while ignorantly naming himself after “a chicken dish.” Wenwu doesn’t want the mantle of the Mandarin, but he doesn’t want anyone else taking it up either, especially not in what amounts to an act of digital yellowface.
When Shang-Chi is banished to the Ten Rings’ dungeons, he finds a surprise: an antic, loopy figure who introduces himself as “Trevor Slattery? The actor?” It turns out that Trevor has been a prisoner of Wenwu’s for years, and based on his addled behavior, he’s either gone stir crazy or been given an unlimited supply of his beloved ketamine. He plays a key role in the plot, in the sense that he helps Shang-Chi and company find their way to the mythical village of Ta-Lo, and then he tags along for the rest of the movie, providing occasional comic relief and generally making himself useless. In other words, he’s a sidekick, the role to which Asian actors in Hollywood movies with white leads were almost inevitably banished. Apart from the taciturn Razor Fist, played by the Romanian heavyweight Florian Munteanu, he’s the only significant character in the movie who’s not of East Asian descent, and he’s simply along for the ride.
When Marvel made Iron Man 3, it’s likely they had no idea they were going to need the real Mandarin someday. (According to director Shane Black, the only reason All Hail the King exists is to placate fans who were mad that the movies had written their favorite villain out of existence, not because Marvel had future plans for the character.) And in fact, the reason the Wenwu version of the Mandarin was used as Shang-Chi’s father is because, in the comics, Shang-Chi is the son of Fu Manchu—a character who has become an eponym for racist Asian caricatures.
Rewriting the past is a staple of comic books, not just a necessity but part of their strengths. When a character’s history grows too problematic or just too complicated, it’s a relatively simple matter to wipe the slate clean and start anew. Spider-Man’s costume is red and blue, then it’s black; he’s Peter Parker, then he’s Miles Morales. But if Marvel wants to maintain the idea that it’s been telling one big story all along—which it needs to if it wants to lure subscribers to Disney+ with the promise of having the entire MCU within scrolling distance—it’s going to have to keep getting creative about how to reconcile its infancy with its present self, and a time when they couldn’t work out how to have an Asian villain with a time when an Asian character is, at last, the hero.
For more on Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, listen to Sam Adams and Allegra Frank discuss the movie in spoiler-filled detail.