Warning: major spoilers for Shang-Chi and the Marvel Cinematic Universe ahead...
Marvel has a Big Bad problem. In the MCU, villains either live long enough to become the hero or, more often than not, are mercilessly dispatched after a solitary appearance. Hela, Ultron, Kaecillus, Ego, Killmonger, and Mysterio (among so many others) were all hugely promising characters that were one-and-done, falling to the sword before their potential was fully harnessed. As a result, Marvel treats many of its villains as disposable.
Curiously, Marvel Studios has always had a more patient approach with its heroes. They are gently introduced in a standalone effort before criss-crossing across multiple projects, all helping create the greater impression of a layered universe. On the other hand, its villains hit roadblocks and generally bite the bullet before they can escape the restrictive cocoon of their largely archetypal functions.
Only the likes of Zemo, Loki, and Thanos have truly got to spread their wings, with only the latter still being a menacing threat before meeting his end. The remaining two have turned to the good side. Over 13 years, that’s not a good strike rate – and, Jonathan Majors’ Kang the Conqueror aside, that trend is showing little sign of changing.
Shang-Chi is the latest offender. Framed as a deeply personal struggle between father and son, the story ends with an emotionally charged, if predictable, final act. Good overcomes evil, Wenwu sees the error of his ways, and Shang-Chi ticks the final box of Origin Story 101 by leaving his nemesis dead. Without one, he can now join the MCU proper.
But Wenwu deserves better. Tony Leung knocks it out of the park as the centuries-spanning tyrant and his death serves no purpose outside of giving Shang-Chi a reason to take the Ten Rings and offering the hero redemption (which didn’t require a blood sacrifice). Wenwu should still be around.
Much of Shang-Chi’s personal journey, including admitting to Awkwafina’s Katy that he killed a man, takes place before his father perishes. The movie even ends as it began, with Shang-Chi regaling his friends in a bar with outlandish stories. Wenwu’s definitive end does have some merit – he is a terrible person who has slaughtered thousands – but is largely reflective of an MCU that sees villains as a means to an end for its heroes, not as complex characters in their own right.
The treatment of villains in general stunts the most exciting part of Marvel Studios’ slate. Half the fun of the MCU is wondering how different characters will react in different situations. How would the Eternals mesh with Loki? Could a student from Queens and a God of Thunder from Asgard find common ground?
Better the devil you know
There is going to come a time where Shang-Chi will enter that dynamic. He might need a harder edge or could even find himself facing off against some personal demons. By having Wenwu stick around as a sounding board (or even as a figure looming in the shadows), things become infinitely more interesting for Simu Liu’s ass-kicking Avenger.
The devil on the shoulder is something Marvel hasn’t truly brought to fruition yet. You only have to look towards Netflix with its Daredevil and Kingpin dynamic to see how that can improve an already great hero. At best, it’s a missed opportunity. At worst, it’ll likely turn Shang-Chi into another homogenous wise-cracking hero. He could become so much more than that if Wenwu was still around.
Luckily, Marvel is partly recognizing its mistakes and is allowing for some do-overs. First up is Tim Roth’s Abomination. The raging dark mirror to the Jade Giant is still around in the MCU, and is seen duking it out with Wong in Shang-Chi. He’ll be back in what should be a meatier role in She-Hulk, hinting that Kevin Feige and his team aren’t averse to giving a second chance to those baddies left out in the cold. Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Mordo will also appear in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, though whether the character will be the main villain remains to be seen – most of the attention has surrounded Scarlet Witch’s appearance in the movie.
The multiverse also opens up opportunities for other villains to make a return without bending over backwards to come up with reasons as to why.
Michael B. Jordan is asked seemingly every other month whether he’ll be back in the MCU as Killmonger – and there’s a reason for that. There’s so much unfinished business and untapped potential just waiting to be mined with characters that, overall, weren’t afforded a serious amount of screen time. Marvel Studios has conditioned its audience to expect more: longer story arcs, decade-long setups, and more than one movie on an actor’s MCU contract. That’s just not happening for one half of the equation.
The Thunderbolts, Contessa Valentina Allegra de Fontaine’s fledgling group of anti-heroes, is, admittedly, a fine start. These types of characters can (and should) be just as well-rounded as the heroes they oppose. John Walker’s stint in Falcon and The Winter Soldier and, hopefully, Yelena in Hawkeye and Abomination in She-Hulk are prototypes for a new type of Marvel villain – ones that can stick around past the end credits to find homes elsewhere.
Great heroes need great villains. Big Bads like Thanos and Kang aside, Marvel has stuttered in that regard. Shang-Chi could have changed that but Wenwu’s footprint on the MCU, while still effective, will surely fade with time. Now, it’s up to a new breed of villain to make it good to be bad again.