Shang-Chi is an A-list superhero trapped in a C-lister’s canon, and it’s why his potential to lead the Avengers on the big screen is no laughing matter. In other words: Shang-Chi is more than qualified to lead the Avengers, and it’s time to put some respect on his name.
Shang-Chi’s origins aren’t as clear cut as you might think. His creators, Jim Starlin and Steve Englehart, were inspired to create a martial arts superhero from the TV series Kung Fu, which famously starred the very white David Carradine as a half-Chinese Shaolin monk. The two pitched a straightforward Kung Fu adaptation to DC Comics, which since 1969 belonged to Warner Bros. and were the producers of Kung Fu. After DC passed, Englehart and Starlin pitched the project to Marvel with all the intellectual property of Kung Fu filed off. Marvel accepted under the condition they include the licensed character Fu Manchu, the famous pulp villain from early 20th century novels by British author Sax Rohmer.
Fu Manchu epitomizes “yellow peril” iconography, a collective of awful tropes and symbols that emerged out of fear and prejudice towards Asian and Chinese immigrants to the U.S. in the late 19th century. He is an amalgamation of all of the fears the Western world harbored towards Asians, their cheap labor, and their mass migration to the U.S.. With his long mustache, yellow skin, and lust for white women, Fu Manchu was a popular villain often thwarted by white heroes. His popularity in fiction unfortunately endured throughout the 20th century, with dozens of film adaptations to effectively center in his own media franchise. In another life, he’d have been a Funko Pop.
In Marvel’s Master of Kung Fu, Shang-Chi is introduced as the son of Fu Manchu. Trained from birth to succeed in his father’s footsteps, Shang-Chi rebels from his set destiny after he learns the true nature of his father’s evil. He embarks on his own path and wanders the world – but mostly New York City – until he can defeat his father for good.
With Shang-Chi’s vengeance against his father serving as the book’s primary narrative, the hundred or so issues of Master of Kung Fu afford plenty of page space to let Shang-Chi be both human and superhuman. From fighting sea monsters to a soulful moment of resentful yearning between Shang-Chi and his ex-girlfriend – a British secret agent named Leiko, who represents an entire side to Shang-Chi that has yet to manifest in the MCU – Shang-Chi is more than just a kung fu superhero from an overlooked period in Marvel’s publishing history. He’s the avatar of themes like self-discovery, inherited guilt, independence, and the limits of filial piety.
Such themes are also found in his MCU incarnation. While the menace of Fu Manchu has been softened into the more authentically complex Wenwu, played by the handsome Tony Leung, Shang-Chi is still a superhero distinct by the blood on his hands and the guilt that haunts him. If Batman is somebody victimized by crime who wishes to never let it happen again, Shang-Chi is someone who is the perpetrator of violence and seeks a path to redeem himself.