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Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (preface)

As with any company that’s been around for so long, Marvel has a complicated and highly problematic history with regards to race. Yes, back in the company’s earliest days, Marvel dared to show Captain America punching Adolf Hitler in the face, at a time when most comic book companies were afraid of pissing off German Americans and the nascent Nazi regime. However, this is the same Captain America who fought “the Ageless Orientals Who Wouldn’t Die!” back in 1941.

It’s undeniably true that through most of the 20th century, the comic books industry (as with pretty much every other industry) was run almost exclusively by and for white people. It certainly didn’t help that for so many decades, the comic book industry was under the oppressive white, patriarchal, “kid-friendly” morals of the Comics Code Authority. Every comic book had to be acceptable for kids, so there was no reason to make or market them to anyone else. Likewise, every comic book had to be acceptable to white people, so there was no reason to make or market them to anyone else.

Thus comic books were made bright and colorful, outrageously silly, and dirt-simple for kids, and loaded with racial stereotypes for the white people. Put it all together and you get a whole lotta yikes.

That said, there was a noticeable shift during the ’70s, when the Comics Code was increasingly revised to become more lenient. Plus, people of color became far more prominent as creators and consumers of pop culture in the wake of the Civil Rights Movement. (see: Blaxploitation films, kung fu cinema imported from Asia, etc.) As a direct result, Marvel undertook all sorts of clumsy half-measures to try and move on from past mistakes, courting a more diverse audience. While not all of them worked out (and we will be getting to the awkward stuff in a minute), some turned out surprisingly well.

For example, the X-Men were famously a superhero group built from the ground up to comment on oppressed and marginalized groups, yet the team debuted in 1961 with an exclusively white roster. Hence “Giant-Size X-Men #1” in 1975, introducing such iconic characters as Storm, Colossus, and Nightcrawler in a deliberate effort to give the team an “international” feel. This shortly after Luke Cage became the first black superhero to headline his own comic series when he debuted in 1972.

But then we have Iron Man, a character with origins rooted in the Vietnam War and all the prejudices of that era. Case in point: His most iconic nemesis was an offensively transparent Orientalist stereotype called The Mandarin. Needless to say, both characters were introduced in the ’60s and both characters had turned radioactive within a decade.

Rehabilitating the Mandarin for a mainstream audience proved to be exceedingly difficult. Marvel has spent the past several decades flailing in all directions, trying to figure out what to do with him. My personal favorite example comes from the ’90s animated series, in which archaeologist Arnold Brock (definitely not an Asian guy), is transformed into a green-skinned alien upon exposure to the gems that power his ten rings.

As for Iron Man, he was repurposed into a more general “anti-communism”-themed superhero, with villains themed after the relatively safer target of Soviet Russia (Crimson Dynamo, for instance). And if that ever became passe, Tony Stark could fall back on the perennial evils of war profiteering and alcoholism. Heavy stuff for comic books, even for the Bronze Age. With all the thorny subjects so deeply entrenched in Tony Stark’s foundation and development, small wonder he was little more than a B-tier character in the Marvel canon. And then the MCU happened.

With Iron Man (2008), the title character’s origins were updated to the modern Middle East wars. Tony Stark’s historic nemesis was obligingly name-checked, but the film was deliberately short on details regarding who or what The Mandarin was. The filmmakers kept on kicking that can down the road until Iron Man 3, in which the Mandarin was played by Ben Kingsley, portrayed as an international mishmash of cultural icons to the point where he had basically no identity at all. Then came the twist that Kingsley’s character was in fact not The Mandarin, but an actor named Trevor Slattery hired to pose as The Mandarin for propaganda purposes. The actual Mandarin was revealed to be Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce’s character), founder of Advanced Idea Mechanics, who hired Slattery and invented the character of The Mandarin to advance his own agenda.

This whole thing was such a clusterfuck, such a horribly botched payoff for a trilogy’s worth of setup, such an outrageously wretched and incomprehensible take on a classic Iron Man villain, that Marvel Studios took the highly unusual step of nuking this Mandarin out of continuity entirely. With the home video release of Thor: The Dark World came the short film “All Hail the King”, complete with Ben Kingsley reprising his role. In summary, the short film retconned everything so that The Mandarin is very real, very reclusive, and very pissed off that his name and identity were co-opted without permission by some white assholes.

So the real Mandarin is still out there. Who or what is he? What’s he been doing all this time? At the time, nobody had any idea!

Further complicating matters was the continued involvement of Marvel CEO Ike Perlmutter, that sleazy, greedy old white POS who kept on thinking that women and people of color were unprofitable niche audiences. No way was any meaningful attempt at diversity ever going to happen under his watch, despite all efforts to the contrary. Luckily, the MCU was eventually carved out into its own Marvel Studios company, totally separate from Perlmutter and out from his control.

(Fuck you, Perlmutter.)

(Side note: No discussion of race in the MCU would be complete without acknowledging the casting of Rhodey. After Terrence Howard declined to keep on playing the character post-Iron Man, he was replaced in subsequent films by Don Cheadle. Perlmutter was reportedly apathetic about the recasting, with the opinion that “black people all look alike.”)

With this schism in the Marvel corporation, their initial plans of a massive cross-media superfranchise spanning across movies and television was no longer feasible. Yet Perlmutter was such a spiteful bastard that he was going to build on whatever was left of those plans to try and beat Marvel Studios at their own game. Thus we saw continuations of “Agents of SHIELD”, with a nicely diverse cast of characters featuring the likes of Chloe Bennett and Ming-Na Wen. Over on Netflix, we saw Luke Cage get his own TV adaptation (quite notably, he was also an interracial love interest on “Jessica Jones”) on the way to the massive Defenders crossover miniseries. Alas, while all of Marvel’s television offerings started out strong, they quickly lost steam after the Marvel Studios carve-out, and the division fell into steep decline until it was finally absorbed into Marvel Studios.

The one exception was the TV adaptation of Iron Fist, which bombed right out of the gate. It bears mentioning that Iron Fist has been a highly problematic character ever since his debut in 1974. Here’s a character directly and heavily inspired by the Asian kung-fu movies of the time, and he’s a wealthy white boy. Yikes. Despite numerous calls to modernize the character with an Asian lead actor, the TV series moved ahead with Finn Jones in the title role and a plot that more or less followed the origin story as told in the comics. The end result was swiftly written off as the first offering of the MCU era that was unambiguously bad.

Things weren’t exactly smooth over at Marvel Studios, either. Around this time, Marvel Studios had a fiasco on their hands with Doctor Strange, adapting another white male character with an origin story deeply rooted in Orientalist mysticism and stereotypes. And sure enough, the filmmakers tapped Benedict Cumberbatch (Christ, even that name is whiter than mayonnaise) to play the title role. Yet the filmmakers did put in some effort at taking the edge off: The recurring villain Baron Mordo was reimagined as a more sympathetic black man (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor), and the character of Wong (as portrayed by Benedict Wong) was a powerhouse Master of the Mystic Arts with attitude and intelligence, far from the obedient manservant of the comics.

Alas, those efforts mattered for very little with news that The Ancient One would be played by Tilda Swinton. It bears mentioning that The Ancient One is a personification of the wise old mystical Orientalist stereotype, and figuring out a way to cope with that was always going to be a huge obstacle for any modern film adaptation.

(Side note: In 1978, a TV adaptation of Dr. Strange attempted to sidestep all of this by swapping out the fake Orientalist mysticism with fake Arthurian lore. It didn’t work and the pilot episode never made it to series.)

And the filmmakers oh-so-cleverly thought they could avoid this entirely by casting a white woman in the role, trying to convince everyone that the title of “The Ancient One” could belong to anyone of any race or gender. To put it lightly (and with all due respect to Tilda Swinton, a talented actor dedicated to her craft), this was a huge misstep. As MCU architect Kevin Feige explained in a recent interview

“We thought we were being so smart, and so cutting-edge. We’re not going to do the cliché of the wizened, old, wise Asian man. But it was a wake-up call to say, ‘Well, wait a minute, is there any other way to figure it out? Is there any other way to both not fall into the cliché and cast an Asian actor?’ And the answer to that, of course, is yes.”

You’d think Marvel would already have figured that out, given the aforementioned treatment of Wong in the selfsame movie.

In any case, Feige and his associates evidently took the lesson to heart and made a concerted effort at greater diversity in the MCU. Taika Waititi was brought on to direct the two most recent Thor movies, with Chloe Zhao stepping in to direct the highly diverse cast of Eternals. Peter Parker was given a Native Pacific Islander best friend and no less than two interracial love interests. Sam Wilson took up the mantle of Captain America. Monica Rambeau is now the heir apparent to Captain Marvel. We’ve got Iman Vellani on deck to play Kamala Khan, and Dominique Thorn’s portrayal of Riri Williams won’t be far behind.

Oh, and of course there was Black Panther, which turned out to be kind of a big deal.

(Side note: That’s not even getting started on Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, the “Marvel’s Avengers” video game, the “Spider-Man: Miles Morales” video game, and other efforts to capitalize on the success and popularity of Miles Morales and Kamala Khan outside the MCU canon.)

And AAAAAALLL of this is prologue for the upcoming live-action adaptation of Shang-Chi (pronounced “SHONG-chi”), which has apparently been in development hell since the 1980s. (The late Brandon Lee was first approached to play the character, that’s how long this has been kicking around.) Trouble is, Shang-Chi dates back to 1973, and his origin story is hella racist.

Suffice to say that canonically, Shang-Chi was first introduced as the son of Fu Manchu. Yes, that Fu Manchu. Leaving aside the fact that Marvel didn’t technically own the character — Sax Rohmer’s estate had licensed Fu Manchu and some related characters to Marvel at the time — everything about the character and legacy of Fu Manchu is so unavoidably racist and toxic that precious few companies dare to even whisper the name. So it was that in later years, (after Marvel lost the rights to the character) Shang-Chi’s father was brought back from the dead and rebranded as the sorcerer Zheng Zu. So he’s still goddamn Fu Manchu, but under a different name. Peachy.

Also, Shang-Chi and Zheng Zu both have training from the Ten Rings school. Long story short, this means that they have abilities based in the Mandarin’s trademark set of ten differently powered rings. Just to make things more complicated.

The bottom line is that Shang-Chi was an Asian martial arts expert inextricably linked to at least one heavily toxic Orientalist stereotype that Marvel couldn’t figure out how to work with. By comparison, Iron Fist was a white martial arts expert with an origin story that was relatively easy to deal with. Between the two of them, it’s little wonder why Iron Fist got to enjoy his comfortable B-tier status, mostly unknown to the mainstream while comics fans knew him as the greatest martial artist in the Marvel canon. Shang-Chi, meanwhile, fell so far out of favor that only the most hardcore of Marvel fans would know anything about him.

Yet here we are in 2021. Audiences are more culturally savvy, especially with regards to traditionally geek-friendly properties. We’re more sensitive to racial prejudices of the past, audiences want to see better and greater representation of diversity on the screen, and they’ve shown they’re willing to pay for it. Iron Fist got his chance and he tanked hard.

With Shang-Chi, Marvel had a shot at redeeming this highly obscure character into a world-renowned standard-bearer for Asian representation in superhero media. As to the thorny matter of his father, somebody apparently got the bright idea to simplify the character’s origin, ditching Zheng Zu and Fu Manchu entirely so that now the Mandarin is Shang-Chi’s father. It’s a smart move, and it’s not like there was really much of any significant difference between the characters to begin with.

Moreover, Marvel made a promise at the very outset of the MCU that they were going to turn the Mandarin into a powerhouse villain acceptable to modern audiences. Their first attempt at fulfilling that promise was a disgrace, and this is the best shot at a second chance that they’re ever going to get.

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is set for wide release on September 3rd.

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