After years of trailers, announcements, and unfortunate delays, we are finally entering phase four in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and man is it kicking off with a bang. In addition to a fantastic line-up of Disney+ exclusive series, not just one but two highly-anticipated Marvel films are coming to theaters this year, both featuring diverse characters with zero powers but enough drive and sheer talent to compete with the best of them: Black Widow, and Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. However, only one of these two is making their big MCU debut, leading to the age-old question in the time of comic book movies: who is Shang-Chi? Turns out, a pretty big deal, with a story years in the making.
Shang-Chi was created in the early ’70s, as the popularity of martial arts films began to rise in the U.S. Following this surge, Marvel went on the hunt for pre-existing independent properties to purchase and adapt for their comics. The publisher ultimately acquired the rights to Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu, a pulp villain created in the early 1900s who was infamous for his arcane murders and racial insensitivity. However, Marvel quickly proved they were more interested the Fu Manchu universe’s potential rather than the mad scientist himself, and in 1973 they debuted Shang-Chi, the secret son and successor of Fu Manchu.
Shang-Chi made his first appearance in December 1of 973 in Steve Englehart and Jim Starlin’s Special Marvel Edition #15, a series that, up until Shang-Chi’s appearance, followed Thor and Nick Fury. By the time issue 17 was released, Shang-Chi had proven popular enough to merit Marvel renaming the series to The Hands of Shang-Chi: Master of Kung Fu, a name that would stick until the series end nearly a decade later. Over the course of that decade, the saga explored Shang-Chi’s escape from his father’s indoctrination and subsequent vow to dismantle the insidious global empire created by his family.
Much like Black Widow, Hawkeye, and even Iron Man himself, Shang-Chi is another Marvel hero born without powers who gains nearly superhuman ability through his studies. In the case of Shang-Chi, his destiny for greatness was born even before he was, when his father intentionally sought out his American mother in order to create the perfect heir. From infancy, he was trained in martial arts by both his father as well as the various tutors. During this training, Shang-Chi was raised to believe his father was a force for good in the world, a humanitarian ensuring both domestic and global peace. He was quick to obey his father and carry out his will, not realizing until it was too late that his father had deceived him.
Beyond his own stories, Shang-Chi has been a part of a number of superhero collaborations, working alongside Spider-Man, The Protectors (a supergroup of all Asian Marvel heroes), Daredevil, and even joining the Avengers after being recruited by Captain American and Iron Man. Due to his nearly unparalleled martial arts skills and mastery of Qi, Shang-Chi is often sought after as a teacher of hand-to-hand combat and has trained heroes such as Spider-Man, Captain American, and Wolverine. In addition, in the Enter the Phoenix storyline, Shang-Chi was set to become the next wielder of the Phoenix Force before refusing to take Captain America’s life, thus relinquishing his shot at the title. Honestly, with such an incredible resume, it’s a wonder we haven’t seen Shang-Chi in the MCU already — but it’s not for lack of trying.
Back in the ’80s, Stan Lee discussed creating a Shang-Chi movie or television series starring Brandon Lee and his mother, Linda Lee. Considering Shang-Chi artist Paul Gulacy used Brandon’s father, the legendary martial artist Bruce Lee, as inspiration for Shang-Chi’s design, this casting choice seemed nearly perfect. However, the project never came to fruition. In 2003, a Shang-Chi film entered development at DreamWorks Pictures, with Bruce C. McKenna and Ang Lee attached to the project, though, once again, the project never got off the ground.
In the early 2010s, Marvel reached out to the Chinese-based film production company DMG Entertainment offering to create a teaser featuring either Shang-Chi or the Mandarin that would be featured at the end of The Avengers, in hopes of launching the story of Shang-Chi and the Ten Rings they had been subtly teasing since Iron Man (2008). DMG quickly declined the offer, stating that the Mandarin’s problematic portrayal of Chinese men would put their company at risk of being shut down. However, DMG did accept Marvel casting Ben Kingsley as Trevor Slattery, an impostor posing as the Mandarin, in Iron Man 3, and agreed to co-produce the film.
Following the success of Black Panther in 2018 — and after repeated calls for more diversity and less Chris’ in Marvel movies — Marvel finally made the call to fast-track Shang-Chi, and we’re now less than four months away from seeing the Master of Kung Fu grace the silver screen. From the looks of the trailer, which was premiered earlier today in celebration of lead-actor Simu Liu’s birthday, the film will cover the origin of Shang-Chi with some minor changes. The largest of all of these changes is the omission of the problematic Fu Manchu in favor of using The Mandarin, real name Wenwu, as Shang-Chi’s father instead. Furthermore, director Destin Daniel Cretton said they are making changes to this character in order to not “contribute any more to the Asian stereotypes that we have seen both in cinema and pop culture.” (Also notably, this version of The Mandarin appears to be a very different incarnation than we saw in Iron Man 3.)
Want to learn even more about Shang-Chi? The Hands of Shang-Chi: Master of Kung Fu omnibus’ are available to purchase at most comic book retailers, albeit at a hefty price. For those willing to hold out a bit longer, the long-awaited Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings will arrive in theaters on September 3.