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Shang-Chi Comics Explained: Where The Next MCU Movie Came From

The next Phase 4 MCU movie is on the way, but what comics are these characters inspired by?


Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is headed to theaters, but as the first entry into the MCU's highly anticipated Phase 4 to feature an almost entirely new cast of characters, there are plenty of questions left on the table. Namely, and perhaps most importantly--who is Shang-Chi and what does he mean for the MCU moving forward?

Naturally, it's time to take a look at his comic book history--and, fair warning, it's kind of a lot.

Shang-Chi got his start as a Marvel character in 1973, but his actual origins are a bit more tricky than that. He was created as a spin-off character from the work of British author Sax Rohmer, who penned a series of novels featuring a villain named Dr. Fu-Manchu dating all the way back to 1913. These stories heavily relied on both racist caricature and racist conspiracy theories like "Yellow Peril" for their success, painting China as a whole as a dangerous, alien power looking to corrupt and destroy the western world.

The Fu Manchu novels grew in popularity throughout the 20th century before they finally wrapped as a series (after 13 total books) in 1959. In that time, the franchise spawned a radio drama, a handful of film serials, and 10 feature films (all of which had white actors playing the eponymous villain--Christopher Lee and Boris Karloff among them.)

Obviously, we can look back at these stories from a modern perspective and see how disastrously racist and xenophobic they are, but even into the '70s and '80s, the Fu Manchu stories were widely regarded as an exciting and well understood cultural touchstone--so much so that Marvel jumped at the chance to incorporate its very own spin-off character into its superheroic universe. Shang-Chi was introduced as Fu Manchu's long lost son and went on to have his very own solo title, The Hands of Shang-Chi: Master of Kung Fu, which featured not only Fu Manchu himself but many other supporting characters from the novel series.

It helps to remember that 1974 is also the year that gave us the song "Kung Fu Fighting" by Carl Douglas--American pop culture was very into the whole idea of martial arts at the time.

Of course, the Kung Fu craze didn't last very long and eventually Marvel also lost the rights to the Sax Rohmer characters that made up Shang-Chi's supporting cast. The Hands of Shang-Chi eventually came to an end in the early '80s, leaving the character to guest spots in other books, which he did on the semi-regular, becoming especially associated with Marvel's other martial arts heroes like the Daughters of the Dragon, White Tiger, and Iron Fist.

Eventually, pushes were made on the creative side to help Shang-Chi shed some of the more troubling and racist parts of his origin. The Fu Manchu character was revealed to be an alias for an immortal sorcerer named Zheng Zu. Shang-Chi's half-sister, Fah Lo Suee was given a genuine Chinese name, Zheng Bao Yu in 2013. The team Agents of Atlas was pivoted to feature Asian and Asian American superheroes specifically by writer Greg Pak, using Shang-Chi as a main character in 2019.

So where does this leave Shang-Chi for the MCU? Well, that's also complicated--but in a much better way. The MCU offered something Shang-Chi has never had with the comics: A completely fresh, clean slate that isn't beholden to any level of history (however retconned as it may have been.)

We can already see some of the major changes being made to the live-action version of the character in the trailers and promotional material. For one, he has absolutely no connection to Fu Manchu now, and instead is the son of a man named Wenwu, who is the real "Mandarin"--a character previously introduced in Iron Man 3 as an actor duped into a conspiracy. It turns out the "Mandarin" is real--though Wenwu certainly doesn't call himself that. He does, however, lead an international organization called the Ten Rings that have been operating in secret for hundreds of years. Meanwhile, his comic book half-sister has been replaced with a new character named Xialing.

In terms of powers and abilities, Shang-Chi is a bit difficult to pin down. In the comics, despite his extensive martial arts abilities, he's still technically human--or at least as human as other non-empowered superheroes go. He's been seen taking on various superhuman opponents and even using his martial arts training to focus his chi into things that look altogether supernatural. In the movie, however, his origins have taken a decidedly more fantastical approach. Not only is Wenwu an immortal, he uses the magical ten rings artifacts (which have been dramatically changed from their own comic book counterparts) to fight. Meanwhile, his mother isn't even from Earth as we know it and is instead a resident of a magical place called Ta Lo.

It's unclear what this means for Shang-Chi himself, but suffice it to say he is certainly not as simple as a run-of-the-mill human who happens to be very good at fighting this time around. It is similarly unclear what any of this will mean for Shang-Chi's future in the MCU and where he will slot into the bigger picture as Phase 4 continues to grow and change. We'll just have to wait and find out more as things develop.

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings hits theaters on Friday, September 3.

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