Marvel's 'Shang-Chi' Villain Has Been Hiding Longer Than Thanos

Simu Liu and Shang Chi - Getty - H - 2019
George Pimentel/Marvel
The real Mandarin was teased back in 2008's 'Iron Man' and has references all the way through 2015's 'Ant-Man.'

The Ten Rings, a criminal enterprise of terrorist cells, businessmen and HYDRA loyalists, has been a growing threat in the Marvel Cinematic Universe since all the way back in Iron Man (2008). While their hierarchy, base of operations and ultimate aim have largely been shrouded in mystery and hidden through subterfuge, the curtain will finally be pulled back in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. The film, directed by Destin Daniel Cretton, will introduce Asian-American superhero Shang-Chi (Simu Liu), and pit him against the Mandarin (Tony Leung), the real one this time around. It’s quite possible over the course of the past 11 years that there are clues that point to what we can expect when the Mandarin and his Ten Rings finally stand revealed.

Historically, the Mandarin has always been one of Iron Man’s biggest nemesis. Earlier drafts of Jon Favreau’s Iron Man had the Mandarin as the central antagonist, though after concerns were raised about the fantastical element not fitting in with the grounded elements of the film, and when Jeff Bridges joined the cast, the decision was made to make Bridge's Obadiah Stane the central antagonist despite the original intent for him to become the Iron Monger in the sequel. While there was some discussion about setting the Mandarin up as a background figure, à la the Emperor in Star Wars, the film eventually took a different route by making the Ten Rings a terrorist group rather than 10  actual rings of power made of alien tech. In Iron Man, the Ten Rings operate in Afghanistan under the leadership of Raza (Faran Tahir), who is contracted by Stane to kidnap and kill Tony Stark. Rather than kill him immediately, Raza forced Stark to build a weapon, of course leading to the creation of Iron Man. It’s unknown whether Raza was acting on his own impulses or at the bequest of the Mandarin, but if it was the latter then the Mandarin is directly responsible for Iron Man and the age of heroes that followed.

Though Stane killed Raza, and Iron Man wiped out a significant portion of its terrorist cell, the presence of the Ten Rings continued in the MCU. Ivan Vanko/Whiplash (Mickey Rourke) meets with a member of the Ten Rings at the beginning of Iron Man 2 (2010) and he is given a ticket to the Circuit de Monaco, where he makes his first strike against Tony Stark. We don’t get another canonical appearance by the Ten Rings until Iron Man 3 (2013), which saw washed-up actor Trevor Slattery (Ben Kingsley) pose as the Mandarin and threaten acts of global terror. Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce) claimed to be the real Mandarin during the finale of that film, but it’s likely he was just a disciple, a member of the Ten Rings who had become caught up in his own ego. The Marvel One-Shot: All Hail the King, included on the Thor: The Dark World (2013) Blu-ray, saw Slattery confronted by a member of the Ten Rings posing as a documentarian, Jackson Norriss (Scoot McNairy), who kidnaps him so that he can be punished by the real Mandarin. This was the first confirmation that there was a real Mandarin, one supposedly closer to his comic book counterpart, somewhere out there in the MCU.

For audience members who weren’t up to speed on the continued presence of Ten Rings by way of special features, Ant-Man (2015) saw the organization rear its head again as a potential buyer of the Yellowjacket suit, before Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) busted up the meeting. That was the last time we saw any of the Ten Rings in the MCU, though this Ant-Man reference was brought up in relation to Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings at Saturday’s Marvel Studios panel at Comic-Con. So what do these previous appearances of the Ten Rings tell us? In each instance the organization has sought out cutting-edge technology and invested in weapons dealers and arms designers.

In the comics, Mandarin, a descendent of Genghis Khan, frequently has his sights set on world domination and often attempts to secure new technology to achieve these plans. Raza suggested this in Iron Man when he said, “The bow and arrow once was the pinnacle of weapons technology. It was used by Genghis Khan to forge an empire that stretched across Asia, from the wintry woods of Ukraine to the Eastern shores of Korea. Now, whoever holds the weapons manufactured by Stark Industries rules the world.” Perhaps the Mandarin is acquiring this technology to build his 10 rings, which in the comics had individual powers of ice blasts, black light, mental control, disintegration beams, electricity blasts, vortex beams, flame blasts, impact beams, white light and matter rearrangement. Yet, for all of the modern technology the Ten Rings have focused on so far, the titled Legend of the Ten Rings implies something ancient.

In All Hail the King, Norriss says, “So, you mean to tell me that you don't know the history of the Mandarin himself. He was a warrior-king. Inspired generations of men through the Middle Ages, perhaps even further back in time.” This possible immortality presents this version of the Mandarin as a figure similar to Fu Manchu, who in the comics, is Shang-Chi’s father. Earlier this year, I discussed the likelihood that the Mandarin would replace Fu Manchu as Shang-Chi's father. But perhaps in the blending of two characters’ comic histories, one a technocrat and the other an ancient sorcerer, both skilled in martial arts, the real aim of the Ten Rings is revealed.

Marvel’s Phase 4 is notably magic and mysticism centric with The Eternals, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, WandaVision, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, Loki and Thor: Love and Thunder. We’ve come a long way since the days of the Mandarin being too fantastic to work onscreen. It’s quite possible that the Mandarin and his Ten Rings will attempt to use science and magic together to rule the world, a plan centuries in the making. Of course, that particular union of two schools of study is one employed in the comics by the one and only Dr. Doom. Could it be that Dr. Doom will be introduced as a former student of the Mandarin, and Shang-Chi will provide our first hint at the infamous metal-faced monarch? Whatever the case, I expect the Mandarin and the Ten Rings to create major ripple effects through the MCU, which means Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is one to watch closely.