Who Is Shang-Chi? Marvel's Master of Kung Fu, Explained


The report that Marvel Studios is developing a film for Shang-Chi, Master of Kung Fu, no doubt came as a surprise to fans of the character, who punched and kicked his way to popularity in the 1970s -- but whose star faded in more recent decades. But who is this action star, poised to be Asian superhero to headline a movie franchise?

Introduced in 1973 by Steve Englehart and Jim Starlin in Special Marvel Edition #15, Shang-Chi was created to capitalize on the influx of martial arts films into the United States from Hong Kong, largely starring the iconic actor Bruce Lee.

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The 1970s was a fertile period for Marvel Comics as the publisher sought to diversify its lineup by branching into horror, with The Tomb of Dracula and Werewolf by Night, and blaxploitation with Luke Cage, Hero for Hire. Shang-Chi came about after the company failed to secure the license for the popular martial-arts television series Kung Fu. Instead, Marvel acquired the rights to Sax Rohmer's pulp literary creation Fu Manchu, and transformed the criminal mastermind into a secret villain for the Marvel Universe, with Shang-Chi introduced as his son.

Shang-Chi was raised by his father's minions to become the ultimate assassin, trained in a variety of martial arts to become the Master of Kung Fu. After learning of his father's evil ways, Shang-Chi vows to dismantle Fu Manchu's vast criminal empire and use his deadly hands as a force for good. An instant success, the character received his own ongoing series the following year, originally titled The Hands of Shang-Chi: Master of Kung Fu. The title continued until 1983, ending with its 125th issue.

Predating that other noteworthy martial artist, Iron Fist, by a full year, Shang-Chi largely existed in his own corner of the Marvel Universe, traveling the world with his cast of supporting characters to thwart his father's sinister machinations. However, in his early years he occasionally crossed over with the Marvel superheroes, teaming up with Spider-Man in Giant-Size Spider-Man #2 and Marvel Team-Up #84-85, and with The Thing in Marvel-Two-in-One #29, and Iron Man in Iron Man Annual #4. Less often, other Marvel characters, such as Man-Thing, guest-starred in Shang-Chi's own series.

By the series' end, Shang-Chi had finally defeated his father and retired to life as a fisherman in a Chinese village. He soon returned to action, as superheroes do, but when Marvel's license for Fu Manchu expired, the company was forced to revamp Shang-Chi's backstory: His father was now Zheng Zhu, who had merely used the alias Fu Manchu.

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Since the conclusion of his original series, Shang-Chi has largely appeared as part of team books or as a supporting character, with the occasional miniseries. As the foremost expert of martial arts on Earth, Shang-Chi has used his talents to train such heroes as Spider-Man and Captain America, and holding his own, despite not having any superhuman abilities of his own. Through years of intense training, Shang-Chi possesses heightened senses, uncanny speed to the point where he can dodge gunfire, and the ability to focus his inner energy, or chi, to deliver devastatingly powerful blows.

Arguably the greatest hand-to-hand combatant in the entire Marvel Universe -- take that, Iron Fist -- Shang-Chi has earned his spot among his super-powered colleagues with recent notable appearances during Jonathan Hickman's Avengers run, as a potential love interest in the pages of Gail Simone and David Baldeon's Domino, and a memorable guest role in Greg Pak and Mahmud Asrar's Totally Awesome Hulk.

With a Chinese father and English mother, the character is one of the first prominent biracial characters in mainstream American comics. With the surprisingly robust history of martial arts in the Marvel Universe, the inclusion of Shang-Chi in the Marvel Cinematic Universe has the potential to compensate for white-washing controversy faced by Netflix's Iron Fist while helping to further diversify the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Welcome to the fight, Shang-Chi.

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