While a lot tends to change in the translation from comics to screen, no Marvel Cinematic Universe character strayed further from their original counterpart than the Mandarin. Ben Kingsley's interpretation in Iron Man 3 veered far away from Iron Man's biggest arch-nemesis in the comics.
Though in the end, the universe left an open-ended possibility he could veer back onto track, Iron Man died, and the character's MCU Mandarin's fate was left totally up in the air.
It was understandable that Marvel was not eager to recreate a 1:1 translation of the character in the first place in the modern day. From his name to his appearance all the way down to his origins in the comics, everything about the character feels not only outdated but downright offensive with a modern lens. The character was originally an embodiment of the Eastern mysticism stereotypes, and it was always going to be a tricky task to find a way to update the character tastefully.
At first, the MCU's approach was to build toward the character in a roundabout way, hinting to his existence with the terrorist organization the Ten Rings from their very first films. Responsible for the abduction of Tony Stark that led to him become Iron Man, the Ten Rings were a reference to the Mandarin's weapons of choice: 10 otherwordly rings that each grant a different power. Tying the character in with the Middle East showed a move away from particularizing him to his Chinese origins, while keeping the character offscreen pushed off the issue of how to depict him directly for the time being.
By the time Iron Man 3 rolled around, Marvel at last looked like the Mandarin himself was set to debut. The central twist of the film, however, was that Kingsley's Mandarin did not actually exist—the man acting as the Mandarin was only a front for the true villain's plot. Adapting the character to film in the modern day involved steeping his problematic origins in falsifications and untruths, entirely inverting the issues that made the character offensive in the first place.
Unfortunately, the cost of that approach was that a "true" iteration of the character remained untapped. In order to essentially have its cake and eat it, too, Marvel debuted Hail to the King, a short film attached to the Thor: The Dark World home release that revealed that there was a real Mandarin. The short reveals that the villain does exist and his name and reputation were merely co-opted into the previous ruse. While still not revealing the villain himself, Marvel seemed to promise that the actual villain would one day appear on-screen. The upcoming title Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings seems to be a clear indicator that debut will happen soon.
But where is the character left in the wake of Iron Man's death? With his terrorist organization so integral to the MCU Iron Man's origin, it would seem that the two are already intrinsically linked. It's clear from Iron Man 3 and Hail to the King that the villain has been watching Stark's superheroic career from the shadows. With the hero now gone and celebrated as the savior of the universe, it could be possible that the true Mandarin is left completely unchecked and with a heavy chip on his shoulder.
The possibility of the character appearing in a Shang Chi film ties him back into the world of Eastern mysticism that the MCU seemed to be trying hard to avoid. Certainly, the move will be truer to the villain's comic book origins, but in a way oddly divorced from his arch-nemesis Iron Man. In order to tie all of this in together, it could be that the hero Shang Chi will be filling the heroic void left by Iron Man's death left.
Iron Man and Shang Chi, as characters, are pretty far removed in terms of power level. Shang Chi is almost certainly the most talented martial artist in the Marvel Cinematic Universe—he's a master of virtually every form of hand-to-hand combat in addition to an insane variety of weaponry. Despite this, there is still a big jump in power between the best of the best the human body can offer and what an iron suit can do. The Mandarin of the comics was always a union of the two, with peak human physicals combined with his psuedo-magical rings of power. From everything we know about the character, he could prove more than enough of a threat for Shang Chi.
Directed by Destin Daniel Cretton and starring Simu Liu, Awkwafina and Tony Leung, Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings releases February 12, 2021.