Who Is Shang-Chi? Marvel's Asian Superhero Is More Than a Kung Fu Master

Marvel's first Asian superhero will debut on the big screen in 2021. Here's what you need to know.

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Imagine for a moment Bruce Lee and James Bond rolled into a single character. Now imagine that character inhabiting the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Got it? Great. Whatever you pictured, you’ll see that for real in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, in theaters February 2021.

At San Diego Comic-Con last Saturday, Marvel Studios revealed its epic “Phase 4” slate of movies and TV shows on Disney+. Starting with Black Widow in spring 2020, MCU Phase Four will see the return of Doctor Strange, Thor, Loki, Valkyrie, Falcon, and more, and the debuts of the Eternals, Blade, and possibly even the Fantastic Four and X-Men. (Oh, Kevin Feige, you tease.)

But there is one character fans may not be as familiar with: Shang-Chi, the Master of Kung Fu. The character will debut in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, with Simu Liu in the title role. He will star opposite Hong Kong legend Tony Leung (Hard Boiled) and Awkwafina (Crazy Rich Asians).

A popular character in the 1970s, Shang-Chi faded into obscurity throughout the ‘80s, ‘90s, and ‘00s. While old school readers look back fondly on all 125 (!) issues of Master of Kung Fu, today’s fans may be asking, “Shang-Who?

If you’re the latter, fret not. Here’s all you need to know about Marvel’s master of martial arts, and why his debut in the MCU is a bigger deal than it might seem on first glance.

Cover of 'Marvel Special Premiere' #15, the comic book debut of Shang-Chi.

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Meet Shang-Chi, the Master of Kung Fu

Shang-Chi is a martial arts superhero within the Marvel Universe. While he has the power to duplicate himself (a relatively new invention), his true superpower is in the total mastery of all martial arts.

He is considered by many in the Marvel Universe the best hand-to-hand fighter. Once, in a conversation with Luke Cage, Black Panther spoke highly of Shang-Chi, considering him a better fighter than Iron Fist (Black Panther Vol. 4, #11). And who dares argue with the King of Wakanda?

Born the son of Dr. Fu Manchu, a pulp villain Marvel had the rights to from Sax Rohmer, Shang-Chi was raised to succeed his father until he learned of his evil nature.

After disowning his father, Shang-Chi joined British Intelligence under the command of Sir Denis Nayland Smith (a character from Rohmer’s Fu Manchu novels). Under the British crown, Shang-Chi traveled the world as a martial artist-slash-super spy who spent his time fighting evil ninjas, sumo wrestlers, Nazi pilots, and even Jack the Ripper before confronting his father once more.

(Due to legal reasons, Marvel is expected to replace Fu Manchu with its own Asian villain, the Mandarin, to be played by Tony Leung in the 2021 film.)

Black Panther and Luke Cage reveal Shang-Chi's potential abilities, in 'Black Panther' #11.

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In recent years, Shang-Chi developed stronger ties to the mainstream Marvel Universe. He’s been an Avenger and even took part in the events of the 2010 crossover Fear Itself. He’s also sparred with Captain America (Secret Avengers #9), fought with Wolverine (Wolverine #8), and has trained Spider-Man (The Amazing Spider-Man Free Comic Book Day 2011) and Domino (Domino issues #3-6).

He most recently founded two teams: the Protectors (in Totally Awesome Hulk) and the new Agents of Atlas.

From David Carradine to Bruce Lee

Shang-Chi’s real-world origins begins in the 1970s, when American pop culture had an obsession with martial arts. Marvel aimed to capitalize with a comic book adaptation of the hit TV series Kung Fu starring David Carradine. But Marvel failed to secure the rights, so they went with Plan B: Make their own kung fu superhero instead.

Through Jim Starlin and Steve Englehart, Marvel introduced Shang-Chi, who debuted in Marvel Special Edition #15. The comic transformed into Shang-Chi’s exclusive book, Master of Kung Fu, most famously under the team of Doug Moench and Paul Gulacy. The book’s creative energy, plus America’s appetite for martial arts in the aftermath of Bruce Lee’s death, allowed Master of Kung Fu to become a best-seller.

Sparring session between Captain America and Shang-Chi, in 'Secret Avengers' #9.

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As Gulacy said in a 2000 interview with Comic Book Artist:

“[I]t was also an era when the kung fu movies and Bruce Lee were very popular. What I tried to do at that time was bring Bruce Lee back in a sense. When Bruce died, I felt that MOKF was the only outlet for a Bruce Lee-type guy — that’s how I saw Shang-Chi. It was a continuation of all that fun stuff. We had the spy motif, martial arts, actors, and parody. It was a big stew of all kinds of stuff that made that book. We had Fu Manchu in there … I mean, it was crazy, it was just a mish-mash! And the readers picked up on that.”

More than just a kung fu superhero, Shang-Chi is a former spy for the British crown in a resemblance not unlike Bruce Lee's character in his influential 1973 film, 'Enter the Dragon.'

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Master of Allies

Like all good superheroes, Shang-Chi had a robust supporting cast of characters, though it’s unknown if any of them will make their way into the MCU. Shang-Chi also has plenty of allies from the Marvel Universe.

Sir Denis Nayland Smith, with whom Shang-Chi has the strongest bond in Master of Kung Fu as a substitute father figure and mentor, is the least likely to enter the MCU because of his ties to Rohmer’s novels. But it’s not unreasonable to think Marvel could, once again, make up a new character, or swap in someone familiar. (Nick Fury and Maria Hill, anyone?)

Other Shang-Chi allies include Clive Reston, Marvel’s alcoholic answer to James Bond who butts heads with Shang-Chi over women; Black Jack Tarr, a brutish bigot who fights Shang-Chi before becoming friends; and Leiko Wu, a Chinese-British femme fatale with romantic ties to Shang-Chi. As one of the few female supporting characters not tied up with Rohmer’s Fu Manchu, I am willing to bet Awkwafina will portray Leiko Wu in the MCU.

In the Marvel Universe, Shang-Chi has teamed up with numerous heroes, including Iron Fist, Luke Cage, Black Panther, Captain America, Spider-Man, Domino, Wolverine, Black Widow, and more.

When Spider-Man briefly lost his spider-sense, he studied kung fu under Shang-Chi to make up for his power loss. From 'The Amazing Spider: Man' Free Comic Book Day 2011.

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Why Shang-Chi Matters

The history of minority representation in American comic books can fill up a hundred textbooks, so we’ll leave it like this: While diversity has always happened in comics, it’s never happened enough.

The Green Turtle, perhaps the first Asian-American superhero in comics from 1944, always had his face obscured. In a time of extreme xenophobia against Asians in America, it was rumored the publishers didn’t want readers rooting for an Asian superhero.

Now, with the popularity of the Marvel films, Marvel is finally looking to diversify its sandbox away from the tried-and-true archetype of straight white men. Black actor Anthony Mackie will now play Captain America, while actress Natalie Portman will wield the hammer of Thor. And now, there’s Simu Liu in Marvel’s first Asian superhero movie.

There have been Asian superheroes on TV and movies before, even from Marvel. Chloe Bennett and Ming-Na Wen have both starred in several seasons of Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., while the big screen has had Lana Condor (X-Men: Apocalypse), Jay Chou (The Green Hornet), Ludi Lin (Power Rangers) and Ross Bennett (Shazam!) all play Asian superheroes.

But Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings will be the first solo Asian-led superhero movie from a major Hollywood studio. It’s a long way from Asian comic book creators needing to hide the faces of their superheroes.

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings will be released in theaters on February 12, 2021.

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