At SDCC, Kevin Feige revealed that Kim’s Convenience actor Simu Liu will be playing martial artist extraordinaire Shang-Chi, the first Asian character to get his own MCU solo film. Destin Daniel Cretton is directing, Dave Callaham is scriptwriting, and Marvel is reportedly planning on assembling a predominantly Asian and Asian American cast (with Awkwafina and Tony Leung already signed on).The film will need to sidestep Shang-Chi’s problematic Yellow Peril origins and build a story almost entirely from scratch, though. So four years later, its perhaps worth asking again: is it still possible to have an Asian Iron Fist, but this time, a new mantle holder who is young and mentored by Shang-Chi?
It’s not unusual to think of Shang-Chi and Iron Fist in the same sentence. Both were created during the kung-fu craze of the ‘70s, and they often shared overlapping storylines in the 1974 comic book runs of Master of Kung Fu and The Deadly Hands of Kung Fu. Both characters have spent time on the Avengers and Heroes for Hire teams, and the question of who would win in a fight between the two martial artists is a popular and long-standing question.
After the Netflix Iron Fist project was announced in late 2013, fans implored Marvel to consider casting an Asian American rather than a white actor as Danny Rand and build a new story around that, in order to avoid the many outdated tropes built into Danny’s origin story. Marvel ended up ultimately casting Finn Jones, and while the casting was true to the source material, the show’s inability to sidestep the very potholes that many fans warned about was just one of the many reasons it ended up being critically panned.
The second season fared slightly better, and in the end revealed that Colleen Wing had the powers of the Iron Fist as well. She was a descendant of the first female Iron Fist wielder, meaning Marvel always meant to branch out from just Danny wielding it. Unfortunately, the show, along with all the other Netflix Marvel fare, ended up being canceled before this intriguing premise could be explored further. But the idea it set up with Colleen — that the Iron Fist does not need to be Danny Rand, and will exist long before and long after him — is good, and solid, and built into the canon itself.
That is not to say that the Shang-Chi film needs to make up for the shortcomings of Marvel TV. But there is an opportunity, as well as an obvious precedent, here. Every MCU solo film has given its hero a sidekick of sorts, with some moving into more prominent roles in the Avengers: Sam Wilson now has Cap’s shield. Jane Foster will be wielding Thor’s hammer. Monica Rambeau, aka Spectrum, first appeared in Captain Marvel as a child, and is now appearing in the WandaVision show as an adult. There are also the films that introduced not a sidekick, but an actual Avenger: Black Panther first appeared in Captain America: Civil War, as did Spider-Man. Hawkeye was first seen in Thor. Vision and Scarlet Witch debuted in Avengers: Age of Ultron. Black Widow was a side character in Iron Man’s films and now, years later, she’s getting a solo film.
The fact of the matter is that the Shang-Chi movie has to introduce somebody as his helper, who may or may not go on to helm their own project. So why not include a character who he’s intersected with plenty of times in the comics, and who can eventually carry their own title, like the Iron Fist? And not just any Iron Fist — in keeping with Cretton’s determination to cast all Asians, and with the MCU’s trend of passing on mantles to more marginalized characters, why not Pei?
Pei was first introduced in Afu Chan and Kaare Andrews’ 2017 Immortal Iron Fists run as a young, scrappy girl from K’un-Lun with the same powers as Danny Rand. “In the ‘70s, a small Caucasian boy from New York was raised by mystical monks to become the Iron Fist. In today’s world, I’m interested in seeing how a small Asian monk girl does in New York City. It’s as simple as that,” Andrews wrote in the preface of the comic.
The story centers on Pei being mentored by Danny, but it’s a tale that can easily be remixed and ported over to Shang-Chi. After all, the MCU tends to love mentorship stories, like with Tony and Peter, because it sets up a relationship that can develop over several films. And Shang-Chi himself has a history of acting as a mentor in the comics. In Brian Michael Bendis’ 2001 Ultimate Marvel Team-Up run, Spider-Man actually approaches Shang-Chi for fighting lessons, to which Shang-Chi very briefly acquiesces. The idea is picked up again in the 2011 Free Comic Book Day Spider-Man run, where Shang-Chi helps Spider-Man train after his spidey sense short circuits. Shang-Chi has also mentored the young Killraven.
While these stories are ostensibly less about Shang-Chi and more about the person he’s training, in his own solo film the roles can easily be switched, and Shang-Chi’s willingness to train others can help to inform us about the kind of man Shang-Chi is. Every single MCU hero has been remixed and updated to modern day sensibilities, and Shang-Chi’s story will be no different. And like Monica Rambeau in Captain Marvel, if Pei were introduced, she wouldn’t need to be the Iron Fist superhero from the get-go. She could just be supporting character Pei; simply casting a young actor who will grow into her own hero is one way the franchise can easily connect Phase 4 to a Phase 5 and beyond.
Perhaps at this point you’re asking, but why? Well, why not? Danny Rand already had his time in the sun with his TV show. Why not build off of the idea behind the Colleen Wing reveal and pass on the Iron Fist mantle in the MCU films, in a way that has both the source material to back it up, and would feed neatly into Shang-Chi’s story?
The Shang-Chi film is sure to be a fun ride regardless of who he teams up with, and the fact that an Asian superhero is getting their own film is boundary-breaking all on its own. It would just be extra cool if, in the end, he kicks the door open for others to follow, too.