Race + Film: Who Is The Mandarin?

By Kendra James and Arturo Garcia

Ben Kingsley as The Mandarin via Comics Alliance

If you haven’t seen Iron Man 3 yet and you remain blissfully unspoiled where it comes to the movie’s main villain, turn back now for there are major spoilers ahead. Unlike the marketing teams for certain other summer flicks (hi, Star Trek) Marvel and Disney did a good a job of hiding The Mandarin’s origins and plot line for you to ruin it for yourself now.

But here’s a clue: The Mandarin is not Khan.

For those of you who don’t know anything about The Mandarin aside from the Ben Kingsley casting controversy, I’ll let the Marvel wiki  break it down briefly:

Born circa 1920, the future Mandarin was raised by his embittered aunt following his parents’ deaths, and as an adult he used his brilliance and family wealth to attain prominence in the Kuomintang Party’s reign over China. The Communist Revolution of 1949 cost him his position and power, although the population he had once commanded still regarded him with nigh-mystic awe. After years of seeking some means of regaining greatness, he ventured into the mysterious Valley of Spirits, where he discovered the millennia-old wreckage of a starship of the reptilian Kakaranatharian, or Makluan, extraterrestrial race, and the ten mighty rings which had powered the vessel

…Iron Man visited China to investigate the Mandarin for the U.S. government. Using the rings and his own combat skills, the Mandarin nearly defeated Iron Man, who nonetheless outwitted him and escaped. Soon after, the pair again clashed when the Mandarin pulled Stark surveillance missiles from the sky to use for his own purposes, then manipulated the Chinese government into test-firing a missile which, unknown to them, was intended to trigger world war, but Iron Man defeated him both times.

It’s your standard superhero/super-villain dichotomy after that. The Mandarin is to Iron Man as Lex Luthor is to Superman. China has always been an important part of his back story as his original base of power, and the Mandarin had always been portrayed as Chinese. So when it was announced that Ben Kingsley would be playing The Mandarin we were all, by rights, slightly perturbed to say the least. But after seeing the finished product, Arturo and I differed on how we watched it all play out.

Kendra: Iron Man 3‘s Mandarin is introduced (and spent almost a year being marketed) as a shadowy Osama Bin Laden-like figure whose terrorist attacks were always bookended by a hacked video broadcasts from a fortress in some unknown location. Given the first film’s use of terrorism in another unknown–yet Middle Eastern–country, it was easy to assume that the franchise was going to ride this foreign terrorist thing all the way to the bank. That’s exactly what director Shane Black wanted.

Ben Kingsley gets away with becoming The Mandarin, because The Mandarin is nothing more than a ploy to capitalize on the American assumption that the face of terrorism will never look like Guy Pearce…despite the ever-growing pile of evidence to the contrary. When JARVIS tells Tony that he should be looking for the supposed terrorist in Miami rather than Pakistan, Iran, or any other number of places, his first thought is to reboot JARVIS for a correction. As The Mandarin executes attacks around the United States, the government sends James Rhodes to attack and ferret at the terrorists where they “live”–again, the Middle East. And, while another viewing may be necessary, it seemed that no one ever questioned the logic of turning Middle Eastern countries upside down for someone who calls himself “The Mandarin,” styles himself in a stereotypical Fu Manchu appearance, and surrounds himself with (presumably) Chinese women. Really, that was the first place you thought to look?

When Tony eventually does get to Miami (after a wonderful 20-minute diversion into a 90s style action flick that is maybe the Shane Black-iest part of it all) he’s shocked to find that the Mandarin isn’t the terrifying Osama-esque terrorist he’s been expecting. Instead he’s a British shlub named Trevor whose dreams of acting have led him here, where in exchange for being the face of terrorism, he’s surrounded by women, booze, and footie matches on a flat screen. He’s not even aware that anyone’s been hurt. The real terrorist here is Guy Pierce’s Aldrich Killian who’s set up the attacks for his own benefits. Knowing that America would be ready to accept the image of a maybe-possibly-is-he-or-isn’t-he-not-white foreign terrorist without question, he’s used Trevor to avoid being caught. He’s using the racism we employ in our “War Against Terror” against us.

Terrorism in Iron Man, a Primer
What terrorism looks like in Iron Man 3.

As we have to do after each new successful or foiled act of terrorism in America, Iron Man 3 forces the Marvel-verse US to confront ideas of what they automatically imagine a terrorist to be. Given the events of the last few weeks, the question has become more topical than anyone involved in the film likely could have assumed.

Opinions on the movie and The Mandarin are likely to be varied, but it’s a good opportunity for discussion (which we heartily encourage you to engage in below). Had Ben Kingsley been hired to play the Marvel 616 version of The Mandarin described above this would have been a very different post. However, subverting the terrorism tropes set up in the first Iron Man seemed to be exactly what Shane Black and Co. were going for, and this was a better movie than it’s predecessors for it.


Arturo: Well, it was cleverer than Red Dawn’s workaround. But make no mistake: this move was made for the same reasons.

Oh, forget about the Marvel brass’ sudden turn toward social consciousness. This wasn’t about avoiding racially problematic character tropes; this was about not jeopardizing the film’s prospects at the Chinese box office. Let’s not forget that, at one point last year, the company’s co-president was publicly saying that a Black Panther movie would be “difficult” while talking up a movie involving a talking tree and raccoon as “a great concept.” So let’s keep hoping that the Chadwick Boseman-as-T’Challa rumors are grounded, but keep a wary eye.

But I digress.

On one level, the “twist” on the Marvel movieverse’s take on the Mandarin made sense for me; it took me maybe 10 seconds into the first video “lesson” to wonder if Black was really going to go Fox News with this. So it was satisfying to hear Kingsley’s character explain the smoke and mirrors behind the whole thing, even though part of me was hoping for a fake-out along the lines of Hans Gruber’s “American accent” scene in Die Hard.

But the downside is, Black and studio head Kevin Feige’s rebranding of the Mandarin himself as solely a “Yellow Peril” character covers only part of the story. Which is revealed by the photo that ran alongside this self-congratulatory interview they gave Newsarama:

Modern Mandarin via Marvel Wikia

Really? Is that hairdo any less realistic than Pearce’s action mullet?

As we’ve said in this space before, there was always a way to do a modern version of the character; after the introduction of Thor, which is explicitly referenced by Pearce’s character, introducing a villain who combines tech and mysticism (say, maybe the son of an old dictator-type figure) to challenge not just Tony Stark but Stark Industries would have been no stretch at all. Instead, the company hewed too closely to Pearce’s own credo and subtlety was thrown out the window. If that version of the character is good enough for Marvel to use in its animated properties, then there had to have been a way to keep him credible on the big screen.

The other potential problem for the Iron Man series going forward is, without an actual Mandarin assuming the mantle, Stark’s dearth of signature villains is more exposed than ever–worse yet, Black used the Newsarama forum to denigrate two decades’ worth of comic creators’ work with these characters:

It’s not like he’s a classic villain in the sense you go, “Oh my god, remember that great Mandarin story?” You go, “Well, no, not really, do you?” “No, I guess we don’t.” But he’s been around a long time. It’s like Bob Hope. Everyone says, “Bob Hope! Classic comedian!” Yet for the last 20 years of his life, it’s like, “That’s not funny.”

I’m sure writers like Matt Fraction were thrilled to read that bit of public condescension. So is Black proposing that these movies keep pumping out Angry White Techies? Talk about creating your own demons.

About This Blog

Racialicious is a blog about the intersection of race and pop culture. Check out our daily updates on the latest celebrity gaffes, our no-holds-barred critique of questionable media representations, and of course, the inevitable Keanu Reeves John Cho newsflashes.

Latoya Peterson (DC) is the Owner and Editor (not the Founder!) of Racialicious, Arturo García (San Diego) is the Managing Editor, Andrea Plaid (NYC) is the Associate Editor. You can email us at team@racialicious.com.

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  • Mykul

    It is whitewashing with a bit of B.S. to make it sound like progress. The Mandarin hasn’t been racist in literally decades. This is just a way to do what hollywood always does: make the entire universe white except for the one black friend.

  • SnapIntoASlimJim

    You assume too much of Shane Black, McAlister. As Artuto points out, it was very much possible to have the Mandarin as he is in the comics NOW. Key phrase, “as he is in the comics NOW.” This whole business about the Mandarin being a stereotype is one of the biggest scams I have seen a movie promotion lay out for the public to swallow, which they did sadly.

    Here’s the obvious question: If The Mandarin is such a racist caricature then why is he still in Marvel’s comics nowadays? The reason for that is because The Mandarin has not been this Fu Manchu stereotype in years. There was no reason not to include the modern version of The Mandarin. The fact is, this is a very underhanded whitewash. One of the more disgusting I have seen. A clearly nonwhite person will not have the chance to play what could be an iconic role and It is literally being sold to people as progress of some kind for nonwhites.

    There is one more angle to this that needs to be brought up right now due to supposedly Black acting like he cares for nonwhite people. Shane Black has been tapped to do Death Note. Death Note was a very popular Japanese comic book that was then adapted as an anime series and even 3 live action Japanese movies. If Shane Black really does care for nonwhites that he will hire an actor of East Asian descent to play Light Yagami. Even if the setting of the movie is changed to the U.S. there is no reason not to hire an actor of East Asian descent to play Light Yagami. If he hires a white actor or an actor like Keanu Reeves that’s only about 2/8 Asian and doesn’t look Asian in the slightest then we all know that Black was full of shit.

    I have not seen this question and issue being brought to Shane Black when he is asked about the progress of Death Note and his work on it. This needs to change. If not directly then writers should start writing articles bringing this issue up because Shane Black has put himself on the spot with The Mandarin debacle.

  • aboynamedart

    But my point is, the modern version avoids the caricature aspect in appearance, for one, and would it really have been that hard for him to basically had the backstory of Pearce’s character?

    Lastly, how is pushing for a blonde, white, American Mandarin not whitewashing?

  • Clara

    Is it weird that when a main character of color gets their race changed I’m offended, but when it’s a villain (such as the Mandarin), I’m not offended and even a little relieved? I guess as a person of color it’s often relieving not to see another person of color villainized. It’s less triggering for me to see a white villain who’s obsessed with Asian symbols (so then I can write him off as a guy with an Asian fetish) than it is to see a Fu Manchu villain. At the same time, I’m uncomfortable with this reaction and I’m still thinking through it, and I apologize if I offended anyone with this comment. I’m probably playing straight into their “Let’s not offend China” move, since I am Chinese American and I probably would not have seen the movie if the villain were Chinese.

    So watching the Mandarin twist in Iron Man 3 was very relieving for me, and made all the better for the political and pop culture messages that came behind Ben Kingsley’s casting.

    • SnapIntoASlimJim

      Clara, you are being bamboozled by Marvel and Shane Black. The Mandarin has not been the stereotype character that he once was in years. He was reinvented. This is why he is still in Marvel comic books. There was no reason that the modern version of The Mandarin could not have been used on screen. They lied so that they wouldn’t hire a nonwhite actor. This is similar to when Nolan whitewashed Bane for his last Batman film (i.e. Bane being Latino in the original comics). The big difference though is that Marvel and Black lied to the public in order to be able to convince them to allow a character to be whitewash openly.

      And the whole “Let’s not offend China” move is also a lie. The Mandarin does not represent China. He is in fact an enemy of China. There were even stories where the Mandarin was in Chinese prisons. All the movie needed to do was make it clear that The Mandarin did not like the Chinese government and in fact the Chinese government wants to take him down.


    So wait does this mean the “Ten Rings” organization (modeled after Al-Qaeda) in Iron Man 1 is not real either? That the bald dude and his henchmen were also actors like Kingsley’s Mandarin? I actually find the twist to be quite brillant, since I was dreading that the Mandarin was going to wind up upholding all the “Muslims are terrorists” stereotypes that the first Iron Man movie seemed to indulge in.

    • NellieC

      The “10 rings” was always a reference to the Mandarin. (The comic character has 10 rings that he gets powers from.) And the logo was the same, so it was definitely supposed to be the same group.

      However, I don’t think the bald guy and his various henchmen were actors. Killian says something about how his scheme would leave him in control of both sides of the terrorism business — the terrorists (the Ten Rings) and United States (the president).

      • RCHOUDH

        Thanks NellieC!

  • http://twitter.com/themiddlespaces Osvaldo Oyola

    I thought the Ben Kingsley performance and the take on the Mandarin was a fairly brilliant spot in an otherwise stinker of a movie. I had serious trepidations about the use of the Mandarin, and thus version hit both the right tone (humor) and resonates with a subtext of using racism to manipulate public opinion and expectation.

    I was waiting for a double twist to happen, but it didn’t and that was fine.

    My biggest complaint with the movie was the overuse of the tech baddie thing. They should have linked up AIM with modern HYDRA (like they do in the comics) and make it a New World Order thing instead of yet another military defense profits plot.

  • http://www.facebook.com/PSSYLVR Nafis BI

    would just like to add that while the plot “twist” seems ridiculous, its actually the supervillian that most closely mimics anything in recent history, as there are so many parallels here with the War on Iraq. Its like the writers watched farhenheit 9/11 beforehand.