Spoilers for Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings below.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe is known for never letting a character or story line slip through the cracks (unless you’re The Incredible Hulk, though even that seems poised for an MCU renaissance). More recently, characters like Kat Dennings’s Darcy Lewis from Thor and Randall Park’s FBI agent Jimmy Woo from Ant-Man and the Wasp made surprising returns in WandaVision. If there’s room for a cameo that connects one corner of its massive universe to the other, Marvel will make it happen.
In Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, the story of the titular Ten Rings organization that has been brewing since the earliest stage of the MCU is finally fleshed out. Here, we learn more about the group introduced in 2008’s Iron Man — they’re the people who kidnapped Tony Stark and forced him to build the armored suit as a weapon in the first place. In Shang-Chi, we meet the man in charge of the Ten Rings, Tony Leung’s Wenwu. He’s firm, slightly terrifying, and the wielder of the mystical ring weapons. This Ten Rings storyline arrives, noticeably, with far fewer racial stereotypes than its predecessor. In fact, midway through, Wenwu rips into the bizarre origins of his character, also known as the Mandarin. “He didn’t know my actual name. He invented a new one,” Wenwu says, the “he” being another character you’ve probably forgotten — Dr. Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce) from Iron Man 3. “He gave me the name of a chicken dish. It worked. America was afraid of an orange.”
At this point, some audience members might be thinking, Wait, yeah, I thought I remembered meeting someone named the Mandarin, and he was not Tony Leung? Enter Trevor Slattery, played by Ben Kingsley, whom Shang-Chi (Simu Liu), his sister Xialing (Meng’er Zhang), and his friend Katy (Awkwafina) meet in an underground prison. The slightly loony older man trapped in a dimly lit dressing room is the original, albeit fake Mandarin you probably recall from several Marvel movies ago.
It’s been a while, so we get your confusion. His character was fairly confusing to begin with. Backing up a bit, the name Mandarin had been teased in Iron Man, but the character was never shown onscreen until 2013 — or so we thought. Kingsley is introduced as the villain who commanded the string of attacks against Tony Stark. But by the end of the third Iron Man, we learn that Slattery is actually a British actor hired by Dr. Aldrich Killian — a scientist hell-bent on getting revenge on Tony — to merely play the role of the menacing bad guy. It was a ruse, and in the end, it seemed as though that was that.
But then there was Marvel’s One-Shot, a series of in-canon short films that were attached to early Marvel DVD and Blu-Ray releases. (You know, when physical media was still universally valued.) The short films provided space for different side characters to spread out, and one was dedicated solely to Kingsley’s Trevor Slattery, 2014’s All Hail the King. (The short was conveniently dropped onto Disney+ fairly recently.) In it, we’re reintroduced to Slattery, now an infamous actor serving time in a high-security penitentiary where he was sent post–Iron Man 3. There, he’s profiled by documentarian Jackson Norriss (Scoot McNairy), and during their interview, Norriss reveals to Slattery that the real Ten Rings are very angry with his portrayal of the Mandarin. Slattery is shocked to even know they truly exist.
By the end of the short, it is revealed that Norriss himself is a member of the Ten Rings organization and he’s there to kidnap Slattery and bring him to the real leader — the real Mandarin. Which neatly takes us back to where we meet Kingsley’s character in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. He’s been held as Wenwu’s prisoner for years as, Katy puts it, “a jester.” It’s wild to think that this cameo was bubbling for almost seven years, but that’s Marvel for you. Everything and everyone can come back eventually.