Warning: Contains SPOILERS for Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.
As was confirmed by the trailers for Shang-Chi, Benedict Wong returns as sorcerer librarian Wong, but Doctor Strange never turns up, despite the obvious threat to the universe. The MCU’s premiere sorcerer – who also saw a radical transformation in episode 4 of Marvel’s What If…? during the week of Shang-Chi‘s release – remained removed from the story, clearly involved in duties more pressing than the Dweller-in-Darkness’ attack on Ta Lo. The natural question is why he didn’t see that threat as enough to warrant him involvement.
Shang-Chi is a breath of fresh air in the MCU, a much-needed original property after the first Phase 4 releases – including the new MCU Disney+ shows – all focused on established characters and ongoing stories. While it’s taken 20 years to get the martial arts expert into the MCU after the original Phase One plans to include him were changed, he arrives at a time when Marvel is pushing diversity and representation in a positive way. And that agenda is helped thanks to the incredible collective talents of Simu Liu, Awkwafina, Meng’er Zhang, and Tony Leung, who really buoy the fantastical story.
As a stand-alone, there are limited allusions to a wider MCU story, but there are obviously still big call-backs – this is still an MCU movie after all – including cameos by Wong and The Incredible Hulk‘s Abomination, the major tie back to Iron Man 3 of Sir Ben Kingsley’s return as Trevor Slattery and of course the Shang-Chi mid-credits scene that seems to see him recruited as an Avenger. In the final moments of the movie, it’s Wong who appears in order to recruit Shang-Chi and Katy before Captain Marvel and Bruce Banner help in their attempt to decipher the Ten Rings. It may seem strange that this role doesn’t fall to Benedict Cumberbatch’s Doctor Strange, given his assumed role as protector of Earth, and especially after he doesn’t intervene in the attack on Ta Lo, but it does fit with the logic of his arc. After all, Strange still isn’t the Sorceror Supreme.
The explanation for Strange’s refusal to help in Ta Lo can be put down to the fact that it’s not his universe. Ta Lo may be adjacent to Earth’s realm, but the removal is key, since the Sorcerers only protect Earth from mystical threats. Were the Dweller-in-Darkness to threaten the portal to Earth, then he and his fellow Sorcerers would presumably be alerted, but the threat is not direct, so neither is Strange’s involvement. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t monitor it, given that he is the one who actively sets up the threat watchlist that Loki finds himself on in Thor: Ragnarok (despite Strange not being Sorcerer Supreme), but leaving his post to defend Ta Lo doesn’t fit his job description. And that post is important: as corroborated by Wong’s involvement at the end, Strange is not the defend of Kamar-Taj, nor the leader (or at least organizer) of the Masters of the Mystic Arts – it’s Wong, for now.
In contrast, Strange’s appearances since Doctor Strange suggest that he is now the guardian of the Sanctum Sanctorum in New York and is yet to be promoted above that station, despite his heavy involvement in Endgame. His duties lie bound to that Sanctum, giving him another easy justification for not appearing in Ta Lo. And it always made sense for Wong to be involved in Shang-Chi over Cumberbatch: this is a movie about representation, and Benedict Wong himself gave the final word on why he should have been included:
When Shang-Chi was happening, I was so pleased that it was happening but I was a little kind of crestfallen I wasn’t a part of it. And then the call [from Marvel Studios] came. And I was like, ‘Yes!’ And then to be sat at a table of Asian excellence, it was amazing. And I’m a big fan of all of those artists.