SPOILER WARNING: Do not read this story if you haven’t seen “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings,” currently playing in theaters.
While “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” is one of the most stand-alone movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe in years, the movie does contain one memorable callback to a previous MCU character with a direct connection to both the hero and the rings of the film’s title: Sir Ben Kingsley’s Trevor Slattery.
For anyone who hasn’t seen 2013’s “Iron Man 3” — although, given its $1.2 billion global gross, that list isn’t huge — Slattery’s appearance in “Shang-Chi” could feel rather random. In “Iron Man 3,” Slattery is a hedonistic out-of-work actor hired to play “the Mandarin,” i.e. the head of the Ten Rings terrorist organization, as a deliberately provocative amalgamation of various American evil-doer stereotypes meant to distract from the actions of the film’s real villain. It’s only late in the movie that Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark discovers Slattery’s real identity; a few months later, in the “Marvel One-Shot” short film “All Hail the King,” we learn that the real Mandarin was none too pleased by Slattery’s imitation of him, and has Slattery kidnapped from prison so he can answer for his crimes.
Given that Shang-Chi’s father, Wenwu (Tony Leung), is presented as the real centuries-old mastermind behind the Ten Rings, director Destin Daniel Cretton knew that including Trevor in his movie would be the most direct and natural way to connect it to the larger MCU.
When Cretton first called Kingsley — or, as Cretton calls him, “Sir Ben” — to talk about possibly revisiting Trevor so many years later, he understood it was a make-or-break conversation for a critical element for his movie. What Cretton didn’t expect was how Kingsley elected to signal that he was game to do it.
“That first conversation ended with Sir Ben Kingsley shouting to somebody from the other room,” Cretton said. It was only after a few back-and-forths that Cretton realized that Kingsley was actually “talking” to Trevor Slattery, and then holding the phone away from his mouth and replying as if Trevor was shouting back from nearby.
“This is after about an hour of wondering if Sir Ben is going to do our movie,” Cretton said with a smile. “Trevor starts shouting from the other room, ‘Who are you talking to?’ ‘I’m talking to Destin.’ ‘Who’s Destin?’ ‘Oh, he’s directing the new Marvel movie. They want you to be in it.’ ‘They want me to be in it?! When do we start?!’ ‘Uh, I don’t know, we haven’t gotten into that yet.'”
Cretton laughed at the memory. “It went on for about two minutes,” he said. “By the end, he just said, ‘Thank you for for the chat. Trevor is very excited, but I’ll talk to you later.'”
Kingsley did, of course, say yes. On a storytelling level, Trevor provided Cretton with a critical engine to get the film to its third act in the mystical world of Ta Lo. Only Slattery — who’s been captive in Wenwu’s China compound for years as a kind of court jester — knows how to find Ta Lo, via his uncanny ability to communicate with an adorable, headless creature from that world.
On a thematic level, Cretton was also gratified to have an opportunity to address the history of “the Mandarin” as a racist stereotype from a cruder era in Marvel comics history.
“The idea of the Mandarin was a setup to a very clear stereotype,” he said. “I think it’s hard to imagine who the Mandarin is — this mysterious, really evil Asian dude somewhere out there — and not have some type of stereotype in your brain. So to be able to have Trevor just come in just straight-up apologize for giving a terrible impersonation of their father just felt like the perfect way to say sorry.”
Mostly, though, Cretton just loved Kingsley’s performance as Trevor, and relished the opportunity to see the Oscar winner revisit one of the loosest and most overtly comedic roles in his seven-decade career.
“He was very excited to explore the next chapter of Trevor’s life, to see a Trevor who has actually benefited from being in prison and has come out a clean and sober version of himself with a new take on life,” Cretton said.
Even when Trevor was just in the background as Shang-Chi and his compatriots were in the throes of preparing for an epic battle, Cretton said he and Kingsley would talk about what his character would think being thrust into circumstances so outside of his own experience.
“Sir Ben is a very intricate, serious actor, who takes even a role like Trevor very seriously,” Cretton said. “I don’t mean serious like he doesn’t have fun. I just mean he has layers to Trevor — deep layers that you will never ever see in the movie.”
The filmmaker smiled. “It was really a joy to work with him. He’s a wonderful man.”