Who Is The Main 'Shang-Chi' Villain? The Mandarin Explained

When Iron Man kicked off the Marvel Cinematic Universe way back in 2008, a terrorist organization named the Ten Rings was featured as one of the film's villains, kidnapping Tony Stark and trying to force him to build weapons for them. (That did not go well.) 13 years later, that group is once again getting the spotlight in Marvel's newest movie, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.

But the organization itself isn't Shang-Chi's primary antagonist: that role belongs to The Mandarin, played here by legendary actor Tony Leung (In the Mood For Love, The Grandmaster). Here's everything you need to know about The Mandarin.

The Mandarin's Origin Story

First appearing in the pages of Marvel Comics in Tales of Suspense #50 from 1964 (a period in which America was still very much embroiled in the Cold War), The Mandarin was an ego-maniacal villain hellbent on world domination. Born in a small Chinese village and orphaned as a child, he was trained in the ways of science and combat until he ran out of money; unable to pay taxes on his ancestral home, he was evicted by the Chinese government. Looking for revenge, The Mandarin wanders into a mysterious location known as the Valley of Spirits, where no one had ventured for hundreds of years. There, he discovers the ancient corpse of a dragon-esque alien as well as the creature's starship, which contain ten powerful rings that propelled the ship through space. Spending years studying the advanced science of this species and learning to harness the power of the ten rings, The Mandarin emerges as a formidable force who aims to take over the planet.

Years later, The Mandarin was re-envisioned as Shang-Chi's father, also known as Fu Manchu, a character created by Sax Rohmer who has appeared in dozens of movies and books over the years and, for a time, served as the primary villain in Shang-Chi comics. After Marvel lost the rights to the Fu Manchu name, the character's name was retconned to Zheng Zu in the Secret Wars storyline from 2015. He serves as the master of the Ten Rings, a martial arts school that teaches techniques inspired by the mystical rings he discovered from the alien species. Zheng Zu exiles his son after an elaborate assassination plot gone wrong, and when Shang-Chi eventually returns to participate in a massive martial arts tournament, he ends up facing off against his father for the throne of the kingdom.

A Troubling Past

Unsurprisingly, The Mandarin was not always depicted with the type of cultural specificity or care that audiences expect in 2021. His stereotypical depiction in the comics has been a sore spot for many readers for years, and historically one of Marvel's worst offenses when it comes to problematic racial material. Someone even put together a collegiate presentation about this topic, summing up some of the troubling nature of the character's comics appearances:

"The Mandarin's lineage – he is a direct descendant of Genghis Khan on his fathers side – aligns him squarely with the picture of the devious, barbarous, sadistic, inscrutable heathen that began with the Mongol leader and carried on to Sax Rohmer's Fu Manchu. Yet the Mandarin's very name conjures up a vastly different image of the opulent, silk-enrobed effete with long fingernails. And the Mandarin's mother was a high born Englishwoman, so another competing stereotype emerges. These stereotypes are intended to contrast with Iron Man/Tony Stark, who, despite his faults, has seemingly achieved his status not through birth but through his genius (living out the American Dream) and who seeks not world domination but the thwarting of Communist aggression."

Combine that with the depictions of Fu Manchu in the comics, and it's easy to understand why readers were not thrilled about these characters on the page. "It was really important for us to find the root of that anger and that pain," Shang-Chi director Destin Daniel Cretton told Empire. "That was the goal from the get-go, and probably the number one fear of all of us was creating a Mandarin that was further contributing to the 'Yellow Peril' type of stereotypes that are still flying around."

The Mandarin's MCU History

In the Marvel Cinematic Universe, The Mandarin was positioned as the villain of 2013's Iron Man 3, with Ben Kingsley stepping into the role of a terrorist who has it out for Tony Stark. But in one of the most clever story twists in the entire MCU, it's revealed that Kingsley is not actually playing a criminal mastermind, but instead he's just a struggling British actor named Trevor Slattery who has been hired to pose as the "real" Mandarin. This decision enraged a section of the fandom at the time, but it remains one of the few genuinely surprising and bold storytelling decisions Marvel made when it comes to the MCU's villains, who can often feel underwhelming. (Ronan the Accuser and Malekith the Dark Elf come to mind.)

So far, the "real" Mandarin has never actually been seen on screen in the Marvel Cinematic Universe – although he was referenced again in a Marvel One-Shot called All Hail the King. In that canonical short film, a secret member of the Ten Rings posed as a documentary filmmaker in order to interview Trevor Slattery in prison, only to kidnap Slattery and reveal he was actually working at the behest of The Mandarin, who was not pleased that Slattery had used his name. We've heard rumors that Ben Kingsley reprises his role in the new movie, so maybe we haven't seen the end of that story quite yet.

The Mandarin in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings

In the film, Tony Leung's version of The Mandarin does not use the name Zheng Zu, nor is he ever explicitly referred to as "The Mandarin." Instead, he's known as Wenwu, and he's also called other names like "The Great Conqueror." Marvel has done this kind of thing before – think about how a certain character in Loki is referred to as "He Who Remains" instead of "Kang the Conqueror." But one thing is clear: the Shang-Chi filmmakers have put a lot of thought into how this character should be portrayed.

"Our version of the character is not The Mandarin in the way that people are expecting him to be," Shang-Chi screenwriter David Callaham said in an interview. "'The Mandarin' is a title that has been applied to him in the past by people that don't understand his culture. But he's a much deeper character than I think a lot of people would expect."

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings arrives in theaters on September 3, 2021.