Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings directly addresses the controversial Mandarin plot twist in Iron Man 3, making it even better by tying the two films together. In the classic Marvel comics universe, the Mandarin is the archnemesis of Iron Man, and was, unfortunately, a dated and problematic character, making him difficult to adapt to film in good conscience. After years of buildup, the Mandarin seemingly made his MCU debut in Iron Man 3, but it was ultimately a ruse. Iron Man 3‘s Mandarin was a fiction, created by Aldrich Killian to put a face to his failed experiments and public threats. The real Mandarin, however, had his long-awaited first appearance in Shang-Chi and cemented himself as one of the MCU’s most complex and fascinating villains.
The Mandarin has had a notable presence in the MCU since it began in 2008 with Iron Man. It was the Mandarin’s Ten Rings organization that captured Tony Stark and ultimately led to him becoming Iron Man. Although their iconography was stolen by AIM and Killian, their sinister agents can be seen in 2015’s Ant-Man, season 1 of Marvel’s Daredevil, and several MCU spinoff comics. The first hint that there was a “real” Mandarin in the MCU was in the Marvel One-Shot short All Hail the King, where a Ten Rings member kidnaps Trevor Slattery to punish him for impersonating the organization’s leader.
The full origin of both the Mandarin and the Ten Rings was shown in the prologue of Shang-Chi, illustrating how The Mandarin lived up to his almost otherworldly reputation. With the power of the bracelet-like Ten Rings, the warlord Xu Wenwu lived for well over a thousand years, building a world-spanning criminal empire that worked in secrecy and shaped the course of world history. Needless to say, Shang-Chi spends time addressing the fake Mandarin in Iron Man 3, showing how the mythical warlord responded to Killian’s perhaps unintentional insult and improving the controversial twist without retconning it.
Iron Man 3 was ultimately a divisive film. After Iron Man became a founder and core member of the Avengers, viewers were understandably excited to finally see the hero’s classic archnemesis from the comics show up in his final solo outing. Instead, Ben Kingsley’s much-anticipated iteration of the Mandarin turned out to be not only a mouthpiece for yet another corporate villain with a personal vendetta against Tony but also a source of the film’s crudest jokes. Although the Mandarin of the 1960s was a problematic character, many viewers expected an updated and multi-dimensional version of the classic villain (which they ultimately got in Shang-Chi).
Despite this, plenty of viewers still appreciated Iron Man 3’s Mandarin twist. It wasn’t a needless and empty subversion of expectations for the sake of shock value, as many other films of the 2010s have taken a liking to. The Mandarin twist fit the tone of the MCU and was part of a relatively realistic scheme for Killian. In a mostly ordinary world where superheroes and villains are gradually becoming the norm, Killian was clever to hide his failed Extremis experiments behind the illusion of a new terrorist supervillain. Throughout the MCU, Iron Man’s villains have mostly been fellow inventors with a grudge against him. Tony’s true nemesis, in many ways, was Thanos, making Stark’s ultimate victory over the Mad Titan even more fitting in Avengers: Endgame.
Rather than brush the fake Mandarin under the rug, Shang-Chi creates a new iteration of the supervillain who is more than worthy of the MCU and over a decade of buildup. Moreover, the film has the real Mandarin, Wenwu, explain Killian and his ruse to Shang-Chi. Wenwu acknowledges Killian’s demise and mocks the use of an English actor depicting him as an offensive caricature, saying Killian named him after a “chicken dish” and making America “afraid of an orange.” Wenwu intentionally worked from behind the scenes for most of his life, but the late Killian’s appropriation of his organization’s iconography was deeply insulting to him.
In a way, Shang-Chi was providing some subtle commentary on the film industry’s long history of having non-Asian (and usually white) actors play offensively stereotypical East Asian roles. Doubling down on Iron Man 3’s Mandarin twist also acknowledged western pop culture’s tendency to appropriate elements of East Asian culture disrespectfully and ignore opportunities for actual representation. Killian ultimately stole the imagery and name of one of the MCU’s most dangerous criminals, likely underestimating their true scope. If Killian hadn’t been killed by Iron Man and Pepper in Phase 2, the real Mandarin would have most likely gone after him before even Trevor Slattery.
By acknowledging the insulting in-universe implications of Iron Man 3’s twist, Shang-Chi allows the film to retain its relevance to Tony Stark’s character arc while still giving the MCU a new and modern version of the classic villain. Shang-Chi characterizes the real Mandarin as someone who wouldn’t show his face in publicly broadcasted threats and depicts the MCU’s Ten Rings as being a far greater threat than AIM. Despite the Mandarin living up to his mythic reputation, the film also humanizes him. He may be a warlord and criminal mastermind with a prolonged lifespan, but Wenwu’s motivation in Shang-Chi is incredibly down to Earth. He’s a father who wants his family back together. Shang-Chi gave the MCU one of its most compelling villains yet.
Shang-Chi also tied up another loose end by revealing the fate of Trevor Slattery, who’d initially been slated for execution in the Ten Rings’ headquarters, but was spared due to his entertaining antics. The very thing that so many real-world viewers hated so much about Iron Man 3’s plot twist was what saved Trevor in-universe and then used for some of Shang-Chi’s more entertaining gags. Rather than retcon Iron Man 3’s ultimately successful and fitting Mandarin twist, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings cements it in-universe as an embarrassing mockery of one of the MCU’s deadliest villains, who ended up being the properly updated adaptation of Marvel’s classic villain.