‘Shang-Chi’ Actor Tony Leung Says He Never Played the Mandarin as a Villain

‘Shang-Chi’ Actor Tony Leung Says He Never Played the Mandarin as a Villain

In Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, the incomparable Tony Leung has stepped into the role of a character named Wenwu. You may know Wenwu by another name: the Mandarin.

In a new interview, Leung discusses his approach to playing a proper version of the comic book villain on the big screen, and it turns out he didn’t seek to play the Mandarin as a bad guy at all.

Tony Leung is known the world over to cinephiles for his frequent collaborations with director Wong Kar-wai, such as Chungking ExpressIn the Mood for Love, and The Grandmaster: the latter of which we just profiled as one of the best movies streaming right now. This week, Leung spoke with Elle Singapore, and since he was promoting the theatrical release of Shang-Chi (opening in Singapore the day before it hits the U.S. on September 3, 2021), the topic of Wenwu/The Mandarin naturally came up.

Here’s what Leung had to say about his approach to playing Wenwu/The Mandarin:

“When [Marvel] offered me the role, what they wanted was for me to create a brand new Mandarin, so I got to develop my character along with the filming. I’ve never approached Wenwu from a villain’s standpoint. Rather, I tried to explore the reasons that led him to become who he is. He’s a man with a history, who craves to be loved. He is also human, and he has a family. As I read [the script], I began to consider the many reasons why he’d turn out the way he is — a sociopath, a narcissist, a bigot.”

He’s “a sociopath, a narcissist, a bigot,” but he’s not a villain. Only an actor with true empathy, potentially even for the vilest of human beings, could offer up such a two-pronged interpretation.

A Villain on a Hero’s Quest

In the past, the Marvel Cinematic Universe received criticism for having a “villain problem.” Some people felt (and may still feel) that the MCU is strong and tangy on heroes but rather weak-sauce when it comes to villains. This debate flared up before the release of Avengers: Infinity War in 2018. Accordingly, that film put its purple villain, Thanos (Josh Brolin), on a hero’s quest, making him the main character.

By now, everyone and their grandmother knows that Iron Man 3 gave fans the fake-out with the Mandarin. Let’s just say that Sir Ben Kingsley was not the Mandarin you thought he was. Part of the problem was that the Mandarin is a character rooted in comic book stereotypes of Asians, similar to the Ancient One in Doctor Strange. Bringing him to life was a no-win situation back in 2013.

Fandarins of the Mandarin, rejoice, because now we’ve got a legit Hong Kong actor here to do right by the character. Leung sought to bring nuance to the Mandarin, but in the same breath, he circles back to the idea of the character as a supervillain. He told Elle:

“When director Destin Daniel Cretton first described the role to me, he said there are many layers to the antagonist role, and hoped that I could come on board. I accepted it because of the director. It just felt right. Plus, this is something I’ve never done before, to play an Asian supervillain. A chance to do something for Asia. I thought, why not?”

Like Thanos, it sounds like the Mandarin is a tragic villain, one with many layers. Peel back those layers and you might start to cry like you would if you unpeeled an onion. Shang-Chi is a journey of self-discovery, y’all.

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is in U.S. theaters on September 3, 2021.

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