By Kendra James and Arturo Garcia
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.
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.
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:
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.