‘Shang-Chi’ and Marvel’s Complicated History With the ‘Ten Rings’

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When Marvel announced an upcoming movie titled Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, longtime fans sat up and took notice. Not only would the MCU be debuting its first Asian superhero, but by invoking the Ten Rings, the studio had found a way to tie Simu Liu’s character and origin story all the way back to the movie that began Marvel’s long reign: Iron Man

In the first trailer released Monday morning, fans got a closer look at Tony Leung’s villainous Mandarin character, as well as an intriguing glimpse at the titular Ten Rings. Below, Iron Man designer Dianne Chadwick explains how the original Ten Rings logo was created—underlining how far Marvel has come in the past decade.  

In the comics, the 10 rings are literally 10 physical rings with magical properties worn by a villain called the Mandarin. In the Iron Man films, however, “Ten Rings” is the name of the Middle Eastern terrorist group that kidnapped Tony Stark in Afghanistan way back in the first official Marvel Cinematic Universe movie, which debuted 13 years ago. It’s safe to say that without the Ten Rings, there never would have been an Iron Man. And though Marvel’s initial plan was to make the Mandarin the villain of the first Iron Man—director Jon Favreau even announced that intention at Comic-Con—the film was eventually dialed back to focus on the more personally devastating reveal of Tony’s mentor Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges) as the movie’s big bad. One of Stane’s many sins? Selling weapons to the Ten Rings. 

To both reflect an America still grappling with George W. Bush’s war in Iraq and Afghanistan and avoid getting too involved in real-world politics, Marvel opted to thread the needle with its depiction of the Ten Rings by making the organization vaguely, though not specifically, Middle Eastern. The logo that appeared in that first film, which you can see in the background of Tony Stark’s hostage video, looked like this:

Courtesy of Marvel Studios

When Dianne Chadwick created the logo, Iron Man production designer Michael Riva asked her to put extra care into its creation, noting that “this character could come back” in future movies. According to Chadwick, it was Riva’s idea to make the flag look Mongolian. Mongolia, of course, is not a Middle Eastern country. With that directive, Chadwick made sure the result was as authentic as possible. 

Chadwick designed the overlapping rings, the swords, and the ornate border, but had to track down translators and calligraphers who could design the characters within the rings. “They were actually in Mongolia,” Chadwick told me. “There aren’t that many people who can do this calligraphy anymore.” She says the characters within the logo are the names of Mongol and Turkic tribes or clans. 

The same Mongolian script symbols cropped up again in Iron Man 3, this time adorning the fingers of Ben Kingsley’s washed-up actor Trevor Slattery—who was only pretending to be the Mandarin. Upon seeing this, Mongolia’s minister of sports and tourism reportedly wrote Marvel a letter, complaining about their use. Marvel, in turn, cited Slattery’s ruse as the reason behind the symbols and apologized for any offense. 

At that point, both the Mandarin and the Ten Rings were mostly put on ice, barring a few small references: one in the Kingsley-starring short film All Hail the King about the real Mandarin taking vengeance on the pretender, the other in Ant-Man, where the organization put in bid for Pym tech. 

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