Written by Luke Heine
SDSU History Major / Weber Honors College, 2021
The latest installment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, has hit theaters to widespread critical and financial success. Already, it’s the highest grossing movie during the 2020-21 pandemic to date, and has scored above 90% for critics and fans alike on Rotten Tomatoes. It’s also a success in presenting the MCU with its first Asian-American protagonist, a sign of a growing commitment to diversity and representation in the coming phase of the cinematic universe. With SDSU recently becoming a certified AANAPISI institution, the film’s focus aligns with the vision of our campus and Comics@SDSU. Like all MCU heroes, Shang-Chi has his origins on the comic book page – but how much has changed about the character since he first debuted in 1973 in “Special Marvel Edition Vol 1 #15”?
Top: Bolo Yeung and Bruce Lee. Enter the Dragon. Warner Bros., 1973. Bottom: Shang-Chi vs. Tak. Englehart, Steve, and Jim Starlin. Special Marvel Edition Vol 1 #15. Marvel Comics, 1973, pg. 17.
In August of 1973, Bruce Lee’s landmark martial arts film “Enter the Dragon” was making waves with US audiences. Eager to cash in on the new enthusiasm with their own Kung Fu star, Marvel writer Steve Englehart and Penciler Jim Starlin created Shang-Chi in December of the same year. The debuting issue follows martial arts master Shang-Chi confronting his mixed feelings towards his villainous father and his own dark past as a trained assassin. In this way, it is similar to the film, portraying a hero’s journey in which he comes to terms with his lineage and chooses to use his skills for good. However, how Shang-Chi and his father are portrayed has changed significantly across the decades; quite considerably, in fact, for the better.
Cover of Shang-Chi’s Debut Issue. Englehart, Steve, and Jim Starlin. Special Marvel Edition Vol 1 #15. Marvel Comics, 1973.
The origin of Shang-Chi himself bears several similarities between the original comic and the 2021 film. In his debut issue, Shang is an adult man who has lived his life in China under the control and tutelage of his father, and his living American mother. In the film, in contrast, a 14 year old Shang-Chi immigrated to America, adopted the name Shaun, and only returned to China to confront his father a decade later. Both versions of the character hold a Chinese-American heritage: one by birth, the other by immigration. In this way, continuity across time is presented in the character, as well as the background he represents. His father, however, is a far different story. In the film, Wenwu is an ageless warlord who has lived a centuries long life, using that time to establish the Ten Rings organization which puppets world events from the shadows. He is approached with nuance and compassion, a loving yet troubled father struggling with the loss of love and the burdens of his cruel past. In contrast, Wenwu’s comic book counterpart is Fu-Manchu, likewise ageless and powerful but depicted in a far less flattering (and often overtly racist) fashion. Englehart and Starlin did not create Fu-Manchu, but rather adapted a crime-pulp novel character of the same name which debuted in 1913. The Mystery of Dr. Fu-Manchu, written by novelist Sax Rohmer, presented the titular antagonist as an emblem of prominent attitudes towards Asia of the time: Fu-Manchu is characterized by what Rohmer describes as “Eastern devilry” and “the unemotional cruelty of the Chinese” (Rohmer, Sax. The Mystery of Dr. Fu-Manchu, ch. 7, 10.). Regrettably, these hateful sentiments sold, with 20 million copies sold in his lifetime, a clear reflection of the fearful and xenophobic perspecitve towards Asians held by many of an invasion from the East (Seshagiri, Urmila (2006). “Modernity’s (Yellow) Perils: Dr. Fu-Manchu and English Race Paranoia”. Cultural Critique. 62 (62): 162–194.).
Sax Rohmer’s “The Mystery of Dr. Fu-Manchu”. Rohmer, Sax. The Mystery of Dr. Fu Manchu. London: Methuen Publishing Ltd, 1989. Cover image from pulpcovers.com
By the 1970s, one might have hoped that this depiction would have changed to one less marred by damaging stereotypes, but unfortunately this is not the case. Fu-Manchu continues to hold ambitions of world domination, an Eastern menace who has plagued the “heroic” Western colonial authorities. Written amidst the Vietnam War and growing concerns towards Communist China, the cultural backdrop which influenced this characterization is clear. Likewise, racist adjectives persist, with Fu-Manchu referred to as an “inhuman yellow fiend” and other derogatory descriptors (Special Marvel Edition Vol 1 #15, pg. 10.). Negative characterization of some nature is expected for the portrayal of any villain; clearly, however, these negatives were rooted in bigotry. Even Shang-Chi’s birth itself has a basis in white supremacy, with his white American mother selected as the “scientifically perfect mother” to bear Fu-Manchu’s child (Special Marvel Edition Vol 1 #15, pg. 16.).
Shang-Chi and Fu-Manchu. These panels blend the two characters together, using imagery to highlight their similarities and differences. Englehart, Steve, and Jim Starlin. Special Marvel Edition Vol 1 #15. Marvel Comics, 1973, pg. 3.
This brings us to 2021 – have depictions of these characters changed for the better? Thankfully, the answer is yes. The film captures a respectful and open-minded perspective on its characters and their cultural origins; the characters are first and foremost human, relatable, and free from stereotypical depiction. Fu-Manchu, now Wenwu, is still a significant threat for Shang-Chi to overcome, but not for the xenophobic reasons of the 1913 novel or the 1970s comics. Both Chinese and Chinese-American culture is respected and are woven into the story such that they encourage inclusivity rather than inspire fear, and allow for storytelling that will doubtless better stand the test of time than its predecessors. Perhaps this might be attributed to its director and screenwriter, Destin Daniel Cretton (SDSU Alumnus, Film ‘11) and David Callaham respectively, both of Asian American descent. However it came to be, the story of the character of Shang-Chi lends an optimistic message: that we can learn from our mistakes, learn about each other, and overcome the biases of our past for a more diverse and inclusive future.