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[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 wasn’t clear from the latest marketing for Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, introducing the titular hero as “Marvel’s new Avenger,” then the film itself, directed by Destin Daniel Cretton and written by Cretton, David Callaham and Andrew Lanham is certainly evidence as it positions Shang-Chi as central to the MCU and its larger mythos going forward. With Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), and Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) out of the picture following Avengers: Endgame (2019), Phase 4, so far, has centered on building legacies and creating a new stable of “Earth’s Mightiest Heroes.” Shang-Chi arrives in the MCU as more than simply the “Master of Kung Fu” as he’s called 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 vital to Phase 4’s theme concerning the gift and burden of legacy and powerful individuals finding a way to make it their own.
Despite being one of Marvel Comics’ lesser-known and infrequently appearing characters, until recently, Shang-Chi fits right in with the superheroes audiences have gravitated towards for the past 13 years. With Liu’s performance, a winning mix of charisma and introspection, it’s easy to imagine Shang-Chi fighting alongside and trading banter with Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Captain Marvel (Brie Larson), Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), Captain America (Anthony Mackie), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Spider-Man (Tom Holland), and fellow San Francisco natives, Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) and the Wasp (Evangeline Lilly). Simply put, Shang-Chi just makes sense in the MCU. And while he’s not the starting point of a cinematic universe, or of Phase 4, his introduction feels similar to Iron Man’s 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 distinctly reminiscent of Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) telling Tony, “You’ve become part of a bigger universe, you just don’t know it yet,” during the post-credit scene of Iron Man. It’s a nice parallel, not only signifying the character’s importance, but also the fact that this whole legend of the Ten Rings began in Iron Man and took many twists and turns to get to this point. Some things can’t be planned, they just happen organically, a factor Marvel Studios boss Kevin Feige has attributed to the success of the MCU on numerous occasions. So many of the pieces that make Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings a highlight of the MCU came down to a strange alchemy of elements: Trevor Slattery (Ben Kingsley), the Ten Rings as a terrorist organization, and the Abomination (Tim Roth), all working together. That’s something to keep in mind when considering sequels and future appearances from Shang-Chi. Destin Daniel Cretton and David Callaham boldly eschewed the idea that Shang-Chi needed to stick to the source material in order to work and be taken seriously.
There was a time, not so long ago, when Shang-Chi seemingly would’ve made perfect sense as one of Marvel’s Netflix projects. This was of course before the canonicity of those series became a question mark, and before Daredevil actor Peter Shinkoda publicly claimed that former Marvel TV boss Jeph Loeb had made anti-Asian comments. But at the time, a gritty, urban-set Shang-Chi series that stuck closely to the Master of Kung Fu series of the ’70s and utilized the character as a vigilante cleaning up Chinatown and confronting his father’s assassins seemed like a safe bet and a means to partly make up for Iron Fist.
But that was thinking too small, and too familiar. Cretton and Callaham don’t go for grounded, Asian American vigilantism, but a full-blown fantasy epic with a superpowered Asian American hero who rides a dragon and faces off against the Cthulhu-inspired Doctor Strange villain, The Dweller in Darkness. Part Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, part Pacific Rim, and part Dragonball, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings offers much more than a riff on Bruce Lee movies and tropes of the Asian marital arts hero, as explored in the latest episode of The Hollywood Reporter podcast Hollywood Remixed.
That energy will surely carry over into sequels and future appearances, which hopefully Cretton and Callaham will be a part of. While the question of “what’s next?” for these MCU projects often comes down to looking at the path charted by the comics, Shang-Chi has already largely moved beyond that point. While it’s conceivable that MI-6 agents, and the most frequently appearing Shang-Chi supporting characters, Leiko Wu, Clive Reston and Black Jack Tarr could appear in the future, their arcs were always tied to the international threat of Shang-Chi’s father (originally called Fu Manchu, later Ghost, and currently Zheng Zu). With the threat of Shang-Chi’s father, Wenwu (Tony Leung) beautifully resolved in the film, Shang-Chi has a clean slate that he’s never had before in the comics. In over 125 issues, and most of subsequent appearances, Shang-Chi’s comic book history was devoted to the threat of his father. So, what now?
The post-credit scene in the film establishes Shang-Chi’s sister, Xialing (Meng’er Zhang) as the new leader of the Ten Rings, along with the message that the organization will return. But whether or not they will return as a threat, ally, or somewhere in between remains to be seen. Regardless, Zhang is just as much of a breakout in the film as Liu. Though Shang-Chi has plenty of siblings in the comics, Xialing is a new character, adding another layer of excitement to her future appearances. The mid-credits sequence with Banner, which also features Wong (Benedict Wong) and Carol Danvers (Larson), reveals that the Ten Rings are emitting a beacon to some unknown part of the universe. Early in the film it’s suggested that the Ten Rings might be alien in origin. This would line up with the comics as well, in which The Mandarin took the rings from a crashed Makluan ship. The shape-shifting Makluans are space dragons, who count famed Marvel monster, Fin Fang Foom as among their members. Shang-Chi versus space dragons certainly seems plausible, especially as the cosmic side of the MCU begins to expand.
It’s also just as likely that a Shang-Chi sequel would borrow an adversary from another character, after-all the Mandarin is best known as an Iron Man villain. Wong’s inclusion in the film and the threat of the Dweller in Darkness could suggest that a sequel would further pull from Doctor Strange’s adversaries, which isn’t a bad idea considering how much of Strange’s practice of magic and the culture of Kamar-Taj stems from Asia. The inclusion of mythical creatures was one of the biggest surprises in the film, and hopefully future installments of Shang-Chi 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 Capital Cities of Heaven, and home of the Iron Fist comes to mind. There’s certainly cause to re-introduce parts of the Iron Fist mythos and do them justice this time around, and not centered on a white guy who’s really not that great at fighting. But even without getting into the Iron Fist of it all, the idea of other extra-dimensional mystical cities to explore sounds like a fascinating way to broaden the character’s mythos. Shang-Chi and the Seven Cities of Heaven does have a nice ring to it.
Wherever the sequel goes, the continuing adventures of Shang-Chi have quickly become some of the MCU’s most-anticipated projects, if the audience scores this weekend are any indication. It feels as though we’re all witnessing something special, the birth of a new icon. From a character most people had never heard of before to one on the precipice of becoming one of the biggest characters in the world, Shang-Chi’s rise is nothing short of legendary.
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