[This story contains spoilers for Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.]
Marvel Studios has big plans for Shang-Chi (Simu Liu). If it was not clear from the latest marketing for Shang-Chi and The Legend of the Ten Rings, who introduced the titular hero as “Marvel’s New Avengers”, then the film itself, directed by Destin Daniel Cretton and written by Cretton, David Callaham and Andrew Lanham is certainly proof as it places Shang-Chi as central to the MCU and its major myths going forward. With Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) and Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) out of the picture after Avengers: Endgame (2019), Phase 4, has so far been centered on building heritage and creating a new barn of “Earth’s Most Mighty Heroes.” Shang-Chi arrives at MCU as more than just “Master of Kung Fu,” as he called it in the comics. As the child of an immortal conqueror and a warrior from another dimension and the current wielder of the mysterious ten rings, he is crucial to Phase 4’s theme regarding the gift and burden of inheritance and powerful individuals who find a way to make it their own.
Despite being one of Marvel Comics’ lesser-known and lesser-known characters, until recently, Shang-Chi fits perfectly into the superheroes the audience has attracted over the past 13 years. With Liu’s performance, a winning mix of charisma and introspection, it’s easy to imagine Shang-Chi fighting side by side and exchanging teasing with Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Captain Marvel (Brie Larson), Doctor Strange (Benedict). Cumberbatch), Captain America (Anthony Mackie)), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Spider-Man (Tom Holland) and other San Francisco natives, Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) and the Wasp (Evangeline Lilly). Simply put, Shang-Chi just makes sense in the MCU. And although he is not the starting point for a cinematic universe or phase 4, his introduction feels like Iron Man in 2008.
When Bruce Banner (Ruffalo) tells Shang-Chi and Katy (Awkwafina) “Welcome to the circus”, during the film’s mid-credits scene, it feels clear that Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) told Tony: “You’ve become part of a larger universe, you just do not know yet,” during the post-credit stage of Iron Man. It’s a nice parallel that not only indicates the meaning of the character, but also the fact that this whole legend of the ten rings began in Iron Man and took many turns to get to this point. Some things can not be planned, they just happen organically, a factor Marvel Studios CEO Kevin Feige has attributed to MCU’s success on several occasions. So many of the pieces that make Shang-Chi and The Legend of the Ten Rings a highlight in MCU came down to a strange alchemy of elements: Trevor Slattery (Ben Kingsley), The Ten Rings as a terrorist organization, and Abomination (Tim Roth), all working together. This is something to keep in mind when considering sequels and future appearances from Shang-Chi. Destin Daniel Cretton and David Callaham boldly avoided the idea that Shang-Chi should stick to the source material in order to work and be taken seriously.
There was a time, not so long ago, when Shang-Chi apparently would have made perfect sense as one of Marvel’s Netflix projects. This was, of course, before the canonicity of these series became a question mark, and before vovehals actor Peter Shinkoda publicly claimed that former Marvel TV boss Jeph Loeb had made anti-Asian comments. But at the time, a cruel, urban-set Shang-Chi series that stayed close to the Master of Kung Fu series in the 70s and exploited the character as a vigilante who cleans up Chinatown and confronts his father’s killers seemed as a sure bet and a means to partially deal with Iron fist.
But it thought too small and too familiar. Cretton and Callaham do not go after entrenched Asian American vigilance, but a fully fantasy epic with a super-powerful Asian American hero riding a dragon and facing the Cthulhu-inspired Doctor Strange villain, The Dweller in Darkness. Part Hanging tiger, hidden dragon, part Pacific Rim, and part Dragon ball, S.hang-Chi and the legend of the ten rings features much more than a riff on Bruce Lee movies and tropes of the Asian marital art hero, as explored in the latest episode of Hollywood Reporter podcast Hollywood remix.
That energy will certainly transfer to sequels and future appearances, of which hopefully Cretton and Callaham will be a part. While the question of “what’s next?” for these MCU projects often come to look at the path the comics show, Shang-Chi has already pretty much moved beyond that point. While it is conceivable that MI-6 agents and the most frequent Shang-Chi supporting characters, Leiko Wu, Clive Reston and Black Jack Tarr could appear in the future, their bows were always tied to the international threat posed by Shang-Chi’s father (originally called Fu Manchu, later Ghost and currently Zheng Zu). With the threat from Shang-Chi’s father, Wenwu (Tony Leung) beautifully solved in the film, Shang-Chi has a pure slate that he has never had before in the comics. In over 125 issues and most subsequent appearances, Shang-Chi’s comic book history was devoted to his father’s threat. Now what?
The post-credit scene in the film, Shang-Chi’s sister, Xialing (Meng’er Zhang), establishes as the new leader of the Ten Rings, along with the message that the organization is returning. But whether they return as a threat, ally or somewhere in between, remains to be seen. Either way, Zhang is as much a breakout in the film as Liu. Although Shang-Chi has plenty of siblings in the comics, Xialing is a new character who adds another layer of excitement to her future appearances. The middle credit sequence with Banner, which also includes Wong (Benedict Wong) and Carol Danvers (Larson), reveals that the ten rings emit a lighthouse to an unknown part of the universe. Early in the film, it is suggested that the ten rings may have a foreign origin. This would also be consistent with the comics where The Mandarin took the rings from a crashed Makluan ship. The shapely makluaners are spaceships that count the famous Marvel monster, Fin Fang Foom as among their members. Shang-Chi versus space dragon certainly seems plausible, especially as the cosmic side of the MCU begins to expand.
It is also just as likely that a Shang-Chi successor would borrow an opponent of a different character, after all, the mandarin is best known as an Iron Man villain. Wong’s inclusion in the film and the threat from Dweller in Darkness could indicate that a sequel would further draw on Doctor Strange’s opponents, which is not a bad idea given how much of Strange’s magical practice and Kamar – Thai culture originate in Asia. The inclusion of mythical creatures was one of the biggest surprises in the film, and hopefully future episodes of Shang-Chi will continue to bring the magic. Shang-Chi’s aunt, Ying Nan (Michelle Yeoh) mentions that there are other cities hidden in pocket dimensions. K’un-Lun, one of the seven capitals of heaven, and home of Iron Fist comes to mind. There is certainly reason to reintroduce parts of the Iron Fist myth and do them justice this time, and not centered on a white guy who really is not that good at fighting. But even without getting into the Iron Fist of it all, the idea of exploring other extra-dimensional mysterious cities sounds like a fascinating way to expand the character’s myths. Shang-Chi and the seven cities of heaven have a nice ring to it.
Wherever the sequel goes, Shang-Chi’s continued adventure has quickly become some of MCU’s most anticipated projects, if this weekend’s audience results are an indication. It feels like we are all witnessing something special, the birth of a new icon. From a character most people had never heard of before to one on the verge of becoming one of the greatest characters in the world, Shang-Chi’s progress is nothing short of legendary.
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