Marvel’s The Mandarin has had a convoluted history from terror mastermind to international bogeyman and, most recently, as the virtually immortal leader of the criminal organization in Marvel’s newest hit, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. Yes, this character has been around in some form or another since the very start of the MCU.
But it’s been a confusing and winding road for The Mandarin, a.k.a. Wenwu, so let’s trace his path from the beginning…
The MCU’s First Villain… Sort of
Let’s start at the beginning, because in many ways the Mandarin helped launch the MCU.
In 2008’s Iron Man, a faction of the terrorist group the Ten Rings is behind the abduction of Tony Stark in Afghanistan. We learn later in the film that it was Stark’s partner and mentor Obadiah Stane who engineered the entire thing, but it was the Ten Rings who carried it out.
We didn’t get an actual reference to the Mandarin in the first Iron Man or in the sequel. However, in 2010’s Iron Man 2 Mickey Rourke’s Ivan Vanko gets his forged documents from a shady member of the Ten Rings. It makes sense, given that Jon Favreau, who directed the first two Iron Man movies, has said he wanted the Mandarin to appear in what he had intended to be his Tony Stark trilogy. Favreau knew that the Mandarin in the comics was considered Iron Man’s arch-foe, but he was equally aware of the character’s problematic and racially-insensitive origins. He also seemed concerned with how to meld the character’s supernatural powers – the ten rings are mystical, otherworldly entities – with the tech-based reality his Iron Man films were grounded in.
Regardless, the Mandarin did show up in director Shane Black’s Iron Man 3. Well, kind of. This is where things start to get weird…
Meet The Mandarin!?
In the 2013 threequel Iron Man 3, the Mandarin was a looming villain that had America on edge with his pervasive broadcasts and terrifying messages. Except, it was all a smokescreen, a “custom-made terror threat” as Tony Stark put it. The Mandarin was actually failed actor Trevor Slattery (Sir Ben Kingsley), hired by Guy Pearce’s Aldrich Killian, the founder of Advanced Idea Mechanics, or A.I.M. for short.
Killian used this evil think tank to distort the myth of the Mandarin in order to manipulate the pathology of Western Civilization. At first, the terrorist attack concept was a ruse to cover up the flaws of his experimental Extremis regenerative program — it’s a pretty big flaw, since it causes its patients to blow up! But Killian soon realized it’s easier to rule behind the scenes, so he created a face of terror… the Mandarin.
Shane Black’s decision to make the Mandarin almost a punchline in the film was controversial to say the least. Some diehard comics fans were upset; others thought it was ingenious. But as Kevin Feige explained to IGN back in 2014, just because the Mandarin in Iron Man 3 turned out to be Trevor Slattery, it didn’t mean the real villain didn’t exist.
“That’s one of the reasons we wanted to do the fun short that Drew Pearce wrote and directed,” Feige said then.
Killian had based his Mandarin “avatar” on the real stories he had heard about a mysterious mastermind who was behind all sorts of acts of terror. And the short film Feige mentioned, “All Hail the King,” clarified once and for all that the Mandarin did exist within the MCU — and that he was a legitimate force to be reckoned with.
In the Marvel One-Shot, a member of the Ten Rings organization poses as a documentary filmmaker and lets poor, clueless Slattery in on a little secret: The Mandarin does exist, and he’s not too happy to find out some washed-up thespian has been impersonating him. The film ends with Slattery being taken out of prison, presumably to his death at the hands of the real Mandarin. (Of course, we’d eventually learn in Shang-Chi that the hapless Trevor wound up living as a prisoner of Wenwu’s, where the former thespian avoided execution by performing for the Ten Rings.)
Aside from a deleted scene in Ant-Man in which a prospective client of Darren Cross’ Yellowjacket tech is sporting a Ten Rings tattoo, there were no other mentions of the Ten Rings in the Marvel Cinematic Universe for another half-dozen years… until the real McCoy finally made his debut.
He appropriated Ten Rings, my Ten Rings, but because he didn’t know my real name… do you know what name he chose? The Mandarin. He gave his figurehead the name of a chicken dish.
Wenwu in Shang-Chi: The Real Boss
In Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, Tony Leung’s Xu Wenwu is revealed to be the head of a shadowy international network dating back to the Middle Ages. The Mandarin is just one of the names given to him over the centuries. Due to the power embedded in the mysterious ten rings he possesses, Wenwu is virtually immortal, and his Ten Rings organization – named for his rings of power — has become an almost shadow government, dominating and manipulating global events to its advantage.
During a dinner scene with his children, Shang-Chi and Xu Xialing, Wenwu specifically references the “false Mandarin” episode as he reveals one of the many names he’s been assigned over his long life.
“He appropriated Ten Rings, my Ten Rings, but because he didn’t know my real name… do you know what name he chose? The Mandarin. He gave his figurehead the name of a chicken dish.”
The inclusion of this scene is notable for more than just confirmation that Shang-Chi is the son of the infamous villain. It’s also a subtle repudiation of the racist elements embedded in the character’s original depiction. As mentioned earlier, the desire to import one of Marvel Comics’ key villains to the movies had been there from the beginning, but the filmmakers had to figure out a way to adapt him while also removing his offensive characteristics. Having the character himself point this out was a quite effective way to do it.
In a larger sense, that was also part of the challenge with bringing Shang-Chi to the MCU. The original comic book series that made Shang-Chi a sensation to fans of a certain age was a Bronze Age piece of pulp and spy fare mixed with martial arts. Created by Steve Englehart and Jim Starlin, The Hands of Shang-Chi, Master of Kung Fu was a bold series featuring some of the best art of the era by artists like Gene Day and Mike Zeck. It is also horribly dated in some ways by some of the stereotypes it presents, the most prominent being Shang-Chi’s father, Fu Manchu. The character, created by novelist Sax Rohmer, was an evil scientist who was emblematic of the “Yellow Menace” trope common in 20th century fiction. There was no way to bring that character into the present-day MCU.
By erasing Fu Manchu from the picture, director Destin Daniel Cretton and screenwriters Dave Callaham and Andrew Lanham built an antagonist in Wenwu who was a layered, complex character, a mythic figure who is also allowed a dynamic with his son that is at the heart of the movie.
By taking this path, Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings allowed for the real Mandarin to finally take his place as one of the best and most fascinating villains in the MCU.
What do you think of the way the Mandarin was handled in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings? Let’s discuss in the comments!