In the 1970s, America was in the midst of a martial arts obsession – and Marvel Comics was no slouch when it came to capitalizing on a trend. Enter Shang-Chi, Master of Kung Fu, an almost invincible hand-to-hand fighter with an espionage background – and, in the hands of actor Simu Liu, the next Marvel Cinematic Universe leading man in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.
But who is Shang-Chi? Like many of the MCU’s success stories, this semi-obscure cult favorite has a long and complicated Marvel Universe history. Lucky for those who don’t have time to dig into 40 years of back issues, Newsarama’s got the chops to sum up everything you need to know about the next new MCU solo star.
Shang-Chi made his debut in 1972’s Special Marvel Edition #15. Created by Steve Englehart and Jim Starlin, Shang-Chi was inspired by Chinese-American character Kwai Chang Caine from the TV show Kung Fu – which Marvel previously sought to license. Originally envisioned as the heroic son of now-archaic pulp villain Fu-Manchu (who was licensed by Marvel Comics at the time), this original incarnation of Shang-Chi was an unparalleled hand-to-hand combatant who fought his father’s global criminal machinations as part of Britain espionage agency MI-6.
Shang-Chi quickly achieved Bronze Age popularity, and after his initial appearance, Special Marvel Edition was retitled The Hands of Shang-Chi, Master of Kung Fu and Shang-Chi was also given a regular feature in Marvel’s black-and-white anthology series The Deadly Hands of Kung Fu. And, he regularly crossed paths with other contemporary Marvel street level favorites like Iron Fist and the Daughters of the Dragon.
But in the 80s, the Kung Fu craze died down, and with it Shang-Chi’s popularity - eventually relegating the character to occasional guest appearances and a few references here and there. Meanwhile, Fu-Manchu - originally created by author Sax Rohmer as the villain of a series of pulp novels and, sadly, less of an actual character than a handful of racist east Asian stereotypes through an early 20th century lens – stopped appearing in the Marvel Universe when the publisher dropped the character’s license, making it difficult if not impossible to reprint the bulk of Shang-Chi’s classic stories.
All of this added up to a Shang-Chi sized hole in the Marvel Universe - with even the character’s contemporaries like the Heroes for Hire (a team Shang-Chi later joined) falling off the radar.
But, Shang-Chi never left the Marvel consciousness – he was even one of the original characters included in Marvel’s pitch for the building blocks of Marvel Cinematic Universe (and it wasn’t the first time he was considered – Stan Lee himself considered pushing for a Shang-Chi movie starring Brandon Lee in the 1980s). And roundabout the time Tony Stark was breaking a new superhero barrier on film, Shang-Chi made his way back to the Marvel spotlight as part of a squad of Secret Avengers helmed by acclaimed Captain America writer Ed Brubaker.
Brubaker took the opportunity not just to revise Shang-Chi’s position as the greatest fighter in the Marvel Universe but his origins as well – substituting “Fu Manchu” for Zheng Zu, an ancient immortal wizard. Shang-Chi also got a power upgrade, gaining the ability to create duplicates of himself and carrying various pieces of Stark-built tech. He even made it to the core Avengers team prior to Secret Wars, which rebuilt the Marvel Universe.
Most recently, Shang-Chi has been a core member of the new Agents of Atlas, who are about to go head-to-head with Namor in the upcoming revival of Atlantis Attacks.
When it comes to bringing Shang-Chi to the MCU, there’s one key component that’s bound to differ from any version of the character we’ve seen yet – his parentage.
Though it’s not confirmed, there’s been widespread speculation that the Mandarin, the villain of Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings and, in comic books, the owner of the titular physical ten rings of power, may take the place of Fu Manchu/Zheng Zu as Shang-Chi’s father. But the connection between Shang-Chi and the Ten Rings doesn’t start there – and the comic book roots of their connection may hint at the plot of the film.
In comic books, the Ten Rings are usually depicted as ten actual rings of alien origin that grant the wearer ten powers – one for each ring. But in the alt-universe tale Secret Wars (remember we mentioned that?), the Ten Rings are ten martial arts techniques pioneered by that world’s version of the Mandarin – of which that world's Shang-Chi had mastered nine.
As for the Mandarin himself, actor Tony Leung will portray the second version of the character in the MCU, following Iron Man 3’s imposter terrorist played by Ben Kingsley in what promises to be a somewhat more comic book accurate performance.
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is due out in theaters February 12, 2021.
Ahead of Shang-Chi, why not catch up with our guide on How to watch the Marvel movies in order?