This article discusses the plot of Shang-Chi And The Legend Of The Ten Rings
Shang-Chi And The Legend Of The Ten Rings may be the start of Marvel’s latest phase (at least chronologically), but it’s still cleaning up the studio’s messes. In 2013, Shane Black’s Iron Man 3 brought decades of Marvel continuity to a halt by turning Tony Stark’s archenemy into a hapless MacGuffin. That film promised to bring Iron Man face to face with the supervillain who draws his powers from the 10 rings he wears on his fingers; instead, it introduced Trevor Slattery (Ben Kingsley), an actor posing as the terrorist leader The Mandarin at the employ of the “real” Mandarin, Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce), who wanted to sell a genetic hacking nanotech to the military. Despite Iron Man 3 making a cool billion dollars and becoming one of the MCU’s most distinctive entries, its version of the Mandarin never sat well with fans. Shang-Chi corrects this.
In Iron Man 3, Trevor felt like a throwaway character—one of the many reasons fans rejected him. For the first 75 minutes, Black shows the Mandarin only as a taunting presence on TV, taking credit for terrorist attacks between soliloquies about the crimes of the United States and the origins of fortune cookies in signal-hijacking transmissions that have the feel of pro-wrestling promos. When the director pulls the rug out from under viewers, revealing the star of those transmissions to be a hedonistic out-of-work thespian named Trevor, it takes the audience and Stark a minute to catch up. Trevor’s Mandarin voice might sound like he’s chewing on gravel, and his Lear may be the toast of Croydon, but a threatening villain he ain’t.
Iron Man 3's use of Trevor is purely thematic. The movie opens over shots of Tony Stark’s Iron Man showroom exploding as he introduces the film’s mantra in narration: “We create our own demons.” Trevor is a physical manifestation of this. He is the result of Tony’s career as a weapons manufacturer, which fostered an environment where someone like the Mandarin could arm guerrilla militants and rise to power. Trevor’s “Mandarin” combines Middle Eastern stereotypes and “the manipulation of Western iconography,” playing off America’s post-9/11 Islamophobia and War on Terror, which Stark profited from. Manipulating Western iconography? Sounds a lot like the Iron Man 3 rebranding that takes the alter ego of James Rhodes (Don Cheadle), War Machine, and makes him over as Iron Patriot. Is Mandarin all Iron Man is becoming? Is Trevor all Tony Stark is?
It’s understandable that fans—especially longtime Iron Man fans—felt cheated. Could you imagine if Heath Ledger pulled off a mask in The Dark Knight and revealed the Joker to be another one of Ra’s al Ghul’s lackeys? Marvel was aware of the response. In the script for the follow-up short film “Marvel One-Shot: All Hail The King,” Iron Man 3 co-writer Drew Pearce acknowledges the backlash: “Possibly your portrayal has angered some people,” documentary filmmaker Jackson Norris (Scoot McNairy) tells Trevor. “You don’t have to tell me, mate,” replies Trevor. “I’ve seen the bloody internet message boards. Vicious.” Norris then reveals that the Mandarin is real, and he wants his name back.
Shang-Chi makes good on this and then some. Tony Leung’s Xu Wenwu is everything that Mandarin fans could hope for in that regard. Nevertheless, he rejects the Mandarin title. Leung says with smoldering disdain that Aldrich Killian stole Wenwu’s legend and put a racist name on it. “He didn’t know my actual name. He invented a new one,” Wenwu says. “He gave me the name of a chicken dish. It worked. America was afraid of an orange.” Wenwu is an amalgamation of Mandarin and Marvel’s version of Fu Manchu (Shang-Chi’s father in the comics), two characters that still represent anti-Asian racism. With the “chicken dish” remark, Leung and director Destin Daniel Cretton reclaim the character. They canonize Mandarin’s in-universe history as a racist interpretation and rebuild him as a real character.
This Mandarin gets to have an entire dramatic arc. Rather than reboot these two stereotypes, Shang-Chi introduces a new character from the ground up, filling him with some of the better qualities of the classic Marvel character while adding the stakes that Black took off the table. He doesn’t just flash on a screen. Wenwu has a romance, a family, and a complicated drive that make him a rounded character. From his opening spar among the flowers with Ying Li (Fala Chen) to his final battle with Shang-Chi, Wenwu has dimensions for Leung to play with.
While fans will be happy to have the Mandarin back to his old self, what of old Trev? Marvel’s not going to waste a talent like Kingsley, who gives one of the MCU’s best comedic performances. So when we catch up with his character nearly a decade later in Shang-Chi, he’s taken on a new role: Cretton slots Trevor into the MCU archetype of the wise, older mentor. Think Shaun Toub as Ho Yinsen in Iron Man, Stanley Tucci as Abraham Erskine in Captain America: The First Avenger, or Michael Rooker as Yondu in Guardians Of The Galaxy. Trevor is integral to Shang-Chi’s escape, which leads the film into its third act.
Cretton needed to make a big show of Trevor and gives him considerable space to do it. “The idea of the Mandarin was a setup to a very clear stereotype,” the director told Variety. “I think it’s hard to imagine who the Mandarin is—this mysterious, really evil Asian dude somewhere out there—and not have some type of stereotype in your brain. So to be able to have Trevor just come in just straight-up apologize for giving a terrible impersonation of their father just felt like the perfect way to say sorry.” In the film, Trevor refers to the role of a terrorist as “facile” and “trite” and what he recognizes now as “an unflattering portrait” of the Mandarin.
Trev has a failsafe, though: Morris, a furry, faceless, winged sidekick that looks like a dog that’s all butt. It’s a tried and true Disney trick—when in doubt, add a cute character. The creature is a DiJiang, a mythic Chinese creature delivered to the MCU via the magical Ta-Lo village, where Wenwu will unleash hell if left unthwarted. Morris is a lot like Trevor, an unwanted little creep that ends up worming its way into your heart. More importantly, Morris knows how to get to Ta-Lo but will only give directions to Trevor. By giving Trevor purpose and someone who loves him, the audience can more readily side with the failed actor.
Cretton takes Trevor for a victory lap when he gifts the character the all-important mentor’s death. When Cretton fakes Trevor’s demise, he imbues it with the import of Erskine’s death in Captain America, but it’s Morris who comes crying to his side. It’s a delicate balance, getting the audience to feel Morris’ sadness while not selling out the gag. Finally, when Trevor awakens, Cretton has his cake and eats it too. He kills the mentor and gets an applause pop from his survival.
“You’ll never see me coming” is Trevor’s catchphrase throughout his first two Marvel appearances. When he appears in Shang-Chi, that’s still essentially the case. He’s a surprise, both as a returning character but also by how effective Kingsley and Cretton make him. Both Trevor and Wenwu rewrite history in Shang-Chi. As the film shows, one must face their past before turning to the future.