THE UNADAPTED: Shang-Chi

Posted: October 7, 2014 in Agents of SHIELD, Baer, Guest Column, Iron Fist, Marvel, Shang-Chi, The Unadapted

Guest Writer Extraordinaire Brian Baer provided this look at a Marvel character who has had a whopping zeroo appearances in expanded media. Where’s the Kung Fu love, Marvel?

Writing about Marvel, especially characters who haven’t been adapted yet, isn’t easy. Pre-Iron Man, movies and other media based on Marvel’s characters were as hit-or-miss as DC’s. Since then it’s become a different story. Not only are audiences being treated to high quality films, the Cinematic Universe’s scope is almost too comprehensive to allow Monday Morning Quarterbacking. But this is the internet, after all. So, I’ll give it a shot.

His most recognizable look…which
is pretty unrecognizable.

The real world origin of Shang-Chi, the Master of Kung Fu, is possibly more intriguing than his four-color adventures. Created in the early 1970s for the pages of Special Marvel Edition (quickly retitled The Hands of Shang-Chi: Master of Kung Fu) the character was little more than a cash grab. This was Marvel grabbing hold of popular trends to make a quick buck. If everybody was kung fu fighting, why not them?

Marvel comics already held the rights to the popular TV series Kung Fuand had just gained the rights to publish the pulp character Dr. Fu Manchu from creator Sax Rohmer as well. Instead of a direct adaptation of either, the ideas were merged until something more-or-less original developed.

“Reston.
Clive Reston.”

Shang-Chi was introduced as Fu Manchu’s son, a noble and sympathetic character raised to be an assassin at his father’s command. Recognizing his evil upbringing, Shang-Chi soon rebels and joins Fu Manchu’s English adversary, Sir Denis Nayland Smith, as a secret agent for MI-6. The supporting cast grew with more original characters like Black Jack Tarr and James Bond stand-in Clive Reston. Master of Kung Fu wore its influences on its sleeves; namely, Shang-Chi’s similarity to Bruce Lee. “Shang-Chi was often drawn to look a lot like him,” editor Roy Thomas later admitted. It couldn’t last forever. According to comics historian Jon B. Cooke, “the title, launched to cash in on what proved to be a typically short-lived craze, lasted nearly ten years with over 100 issues…”

Tarr Fu!

Complicating things, Marvel lost the rights of Fu Manchu and the other Rohmer characters. Careful use of code names and soft reboots were required to explain his origin in later appearances. Marvel still hasn’t decided on an official name for the Fu Manchu proxy standing in for Shang-Chi’s father now.

Along with the appearances of Fu Manchu and Denis Nayland Smith, long-time penciler Paul Gulacy tended to draw characters to resemble celebrities. Beyond Bruce Lee, famous faces like Sean Connery and Marlon Brando appeared. Securing rights to re-release these stories would be impossible.

Les Daniels referred to Master of Kung Fu‘s scripting as “ingenious” in Doug Moench’s lengthy run. Artwork from Gulacy and Mike Zeck is regularly heralded. Though considered one of the classics of Marvel’s Bronze Age, the series can never be reprinted for modern audiences.

“Bruce Who? I don’t know what
you’re talking about.”

In the last few decades, Shang-Chi has joined teams like Heroes for Hire and various branches of The Avengers. He’s had guest spots in other titles. He’s carved out a niche as a combat expert, someone characters like Wolverine can approach to brush up on fighting skills. But he’ll never be a household name.

He is, however, a great character. And as one of the first prominent Asian heroes in comics, he is also serves an important purpose in the mainstream. InChinese American Masculinity: From Fu Manchu to Bruce Lee, Jachnson Chan defines Shang-Chi as “the quintessential Chinese immigrant hero who simultaneously fights for the West, severs his relationship with his Chinese father, and then returns to China when the job is done.”

Shang-Chi’s name has also been floating in rumor mills for Hollywood adaptations since 2001. Back then, Stephen Norrington announced a film project titled The Hands of Shang-Chi, which he promised to be “a real honest-to-goodness martial arts film, rather than a film that simply has martial arts in it.”

“Whoa. I know Kung-Fu.”

Production moved at a glacial pace. By 2004, Ang Lee had joined as a producer. In 2005, Yuen Woo-Ping had replaced Norrington and Bruce McKenna had finished the screenplay. In 2006, Lee swore they were still working on it. That’s the last we’ve heard of the project.

Shang-Chi could fit into the Marvel Cinematic Universe rather well, if only in a supporting role capacity. As a hardened warrior, a kung fu master with Zen-like calm, it would be fun to watch the Robert Downey, Jr.-sized egos bounce off his stoic exterior. He could work very well as a trainer, similar to how Wildcat is set to be used in the upcoming season of Arrow. One could assume there would be a position like that available in the upcoming Iron Fist Netflix series. His secret agent chops would also be welcome on the upcoming season of Agents of SHIELD, in a cast which desperately needs a little more professionalism. Imagine the ragtag group of disavowed SHIELD agents turning to Shang-Chi for some training/assistance in taking down a mystical threat. Throw him in the mix and the story practically writes itself.

The fact he hasn’t been adapted yet speaks to the special quality Shang-Chi brings to the table – He’s a quiet, simple hero with no flairs, gimmicks, or superpowers. There’s a market for that. If anyone could make it work in other media, it’d be Marvel.

Any day now…
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