Saturday, January 9, 2016

Review: "Iron Man 3" Part 1: The Mandarin

The Iron Man 3 Mandarin twist.

And why I defend it.

Once again, I get to talk about racism. Joy.
First and foremost, let’s talk about the Mandarin from the comics.

He’s a racist caricature.

I’m sorry to all the character’s fans, but it’s true.

The History
Most, if not all, ethnicities have a go-to villain stereotype that we tend to use here in America, many of which have fallen out of fashion. The British alternate between suave masterminds to utter brutes, South Americans are usually portrayed as drug dealers, and anyone who doesn’t look white can be cast as some kind of terrorist. (I’ll be getting to that soon enough, don’t you worry.) But there was once a character called Dr. Fu Manchu. Long story short, he made up for his cruelty with his massive intellect, numerous degrees, and enormous criminal empire. The character was so popular that he inspired similar “Yellow Peril” villains like Ming the Merciless, Dr. No, Rā's al Ghūl… and, yes, the Mandarin.

1960's... Just... no.
Iron Man’s classic arch nemesis is a Yellow Peril stereotype. A brilliant Asian man who dreams of conquest and idolizes his ancestor, Genghis Khan. And with his magical Ten Rings of Power (later retconned into being alien technology), he has the means to inflict his horrible will on the world. The character first appeared in Tales of Suspense #50 in 1964, when such things weren’t considered racist.

Now? Very racist.

As such, the character has been given numerous revamps in the comics to make him more relevant and less of a stereotype.

Including making him look white, I guess.
And the various cartoons have their own methods of trying to make him less of a stereotype.

Including making him look green, I guess.
But even with all these revamps, he simply isn’t used as much these days because of, you know, all the racism. In fact, he was actually going to appear in the first Iron Man film, revamped into being a young, millionaire playboy, much like Tony. The plan was to build up Obadiah Stane’s treachery over the trilogy and have the Mandarin be the villain in the first film. But the plan was soon reversed for many reasons, including the fact that the Mandarin’s Ten Rings of Power were a little far-fetched for their grounded, realistic take on the character.

But you can’t not use a hero’s arch villain. Superman will always end up fighting Lex Luthor and Batman will always end up fighting the Joker.

Except in Beware the Batman, but who knows what Season 2 would have brought us?
But when Iron Man 3 was first being planned, Shane Black did not want to use the character at all. There were many reasons for this. First of all, the Mandarin basically appeared in spirit in the first film with the terrorists being called “the Ten Rings.” Second of all, Shane Black wanted to adapt the “Extremis” storyline. Third of all, Marvel was bending over backwards to please China, and not even the stunt casting of Fan Bingbing for a China-only cut would make up for the fact that the Mandarin is, once again, a Yellow Peril stereotype.

The Idea
It was Drew Pierce, the film’s screenwriter, who suggested that “the Mandarin” should be a fake; a front for the real villain. They took the idea and ran with it.

According to Shane Black: “I wanted to do an interesting story choice, something that was about our own fear and our own ways of viewing villains. What if he's sort of this all-things-to-all-people uber-terrorist? What if he is the myth, and in the end that is what we're dealing with: a created myth perpetuated and cobbled together from popular consciousness?"

In an interesting twist, the character is racist on purpose. And that makes it not racist in the end.

Let me explain, because that’s a heck of a statement.

Remember the “Mandarin”’s spiel on fortune cookies? They’re an American invention, made by taken vaguely foreign things and presenting it to look Chinese? Well, that’s exactly what Shane Black did. He took a British man with dark skin and turned him into a modern terrorist who was allegedly a follower of the teachings of Sun Tzu. You couldn’t cobble together more ethnic villain stereotypes if you tried.

Before the film came out, they had to present the “Mandarin” like he was the genuine villain. Shane Black, even Ben Kingsley gave interviews talking about his role like he was the main villain. And so, cries of racism were thrown around.

Ironically enough, the sarcasm dripping off this picture is kind of unintentionally correct.
These people were missing the point. By being the point. The Mandarin looks like a villainous stereotype because we recognize these stereotypes as "villainous." Which, when you think about it, means that perhaps something about us needs to change.

The dark skin? The modern terrorism theme? The Chinese trappings? Everything about him screams “villain” because, as uncomfortable as this idea might make us, this is kind of what we expect from our villains. We accept that Middle Easterners will be shown as terrorists in film, and that Asia will always try and rule the world somehow. It’s only when you take all of these stereotypes and toss them together that we tend to speak up against it.

In-universe, Aldrich Killian based the Mandarin on what people expected a terrorist mastermind to look like, playing on fears of the Middle East and Asia. And that’s also what the filmmakers did.

So no. I don’t believe that this particular version of the character is inherently racist because it’s using these stereotypes to point out how ludicrous they are.

The definition of satire.

But now that I’ve defended the idea, what about the twist?

The Twist
Well, it’s actually quite impressive how they managed to keep it a secret. Marion Cotillard’s identity as Talia al Ghul was leaked ages before the film came out. People correctly guessed that Vision had the Mind Stone in his forehead.

Information gets out.

Except here. Just this once.

LEGO even went the extra mile to make the Mandarin look like the bad guy.
Which means that the world saw this film with the twist intact, as it was meant to be seen. And what a twist it is.

The fact that Iron Man’s number one comic book arch enemy is a fake is freaking ballsy. It was a real risk to take, and not everybody in the audience was happy with it, leading to a retcon that I’ll get to in my coverage of the Marvel One-Shots.

In my opinion (which, in the end, is all I can give), I think the twist works. Even when you ignore the fact that Killian was getting more focus than the movie’s alleged villain, it’s foreshadowed in many ways (as I pointed out in the Recap), it fits with the film’s theme of identity and who people really are when the chips are down, and goes along with how Iron Man 3 treats the standard film formula in general, which I’ll get into in the second Review.

But even if I liked the twist, what about Trevor Slattery/The Mandarin as a character?

The Character
Ben Kingsley gives an amazing performance. Two of them.

The Mandarin may be a collection of stereotypes, but the best thing about him is the only thing that isn't: that voice. When the Mandarin speaks, that Baptist preacher voice makes you listen. There’s something about it that puts a chill down your spine.

Kind of reminds me of another villain from 2012 with a weird voice who worked for a secret villain….
I’d talk about the other aspects of the Mandarin… but none of them are “real.” The Asian iconography, the anarchist stylings, none of it. It sure fits with the look of the character, but that aspect of the character is completely false, which I've already gone over. So let’s talk about what isn’t.

Trevor Slattery (Ben Kingsley)
Love him or hate him. People think that this brain-fried actor is either hilarious or annoying. Personally, I find him hilarious. Ben Kingsley rarely gets a chance to strut his comedic abilities, and he certainly delivers. Is it over the top? A little. But that’s where the love-it-or-hate-it comes in.

Personally, I find the character to be a little refreshing. I mean, this is a dark movie. Trevor provides some much-needed comic relief that isn't based on sarcasm and snark.

But there still remains one final question that, as ever, is simply a matter of opinion.

Was It Worth It?
I mean, they basically used up Iron Man’s greatest enemy as a smokescreen. Was the twist worth altering the character and making sure that the Mandarin could never appear onscreen in his more traditional form? Well, as of a later Marvel One-Shot, that’s a moot point. But Aldrich Killian has a good point: Ever since Thor, subtlety’s had its day. I mean, Marvel was working on a movie about a talking raccoon at this point. Did they really feel the need to take away the Mandarins magic/alien Rings of Power? It would be pretty cool to see Tony fight a guy like that.

Even though he's OP out the wazoo.
And Killian, the real Mandarin, is yet another millionaire like Stane and Hammer, instead of a former millionaire who reinvented himself as a mystic genius.

But like I said, this is all a matter of opinion. And in the end, I enjoyed Iron Man 3’s take on the Mandarin. It was clever, it was cool, and it was funny. If you disagree with me, that’s fine. If you wanted to see the Mandarin shoot lightning from his rings, that’s fine. If you didn’t think Trevor Slattery was funny, that’s fine. At the very least, I hope I helped you to see that the change to the character had a reason and wasn’t just done to piss you off in particular. You might not agree with the change, but at least you learned something, right? Maybe?

Well, maybe I’ll teach you something in my Review of the movie as a whole, like how Iron Man 3 is basically the anti-comic book-movie. What do I mean by that? You’ll have to find out.


  1. To judge if Mandarin's adaptation was done well, I must break him into pieces and analyze each one.

    Yellow Peril - We like it or not its part of character. But once we remember that Killian is real Mandarin, he actually faithful re-imagining and modern update of concept. I mean, he has dragon tattoo and can karate chop steel, what more do you want? Him being Asian? Well, if Heimdall can be black then Mandarin can be white, especially since he was half British in comics.

    Persona - Megalomaniac, a bit of Darwinist...I'm not sure what's more to him , his personality changed a bit from story to story. Speaking of...

    Stories - I actually heard that writers had trouble because Mandarin doesn't really have his grand defining story. With that said, Matt Fraction wrote story where he kidnapped guy to make movie about him which was actually a propaganda and there was that time when he wanted to use Extremis to wipe out big portion of humanity. Oh and he lost hands once. Surprisingly accurate.

    Appearance - Its all there, just like his name just on Slattery's who's Killian's Face and Voice. Well, unless you watched movie in China where he was called Man Daren (Big Man), but I digress. Meanwhile Killian looks more like his more modern take pictured above. And if that's not close enough, well Purple Man isn't even purple and you don't see people complaining.

    Theme - Since Mandarin doesn't have any personal connection to Stark, he obviously must have theme to be his nemesis: Science vs Magic, arguably man of future vs man of past. Well, story is about moving on and facing demons from past, and Tony's psychological problems are caused by confronting things greater then him and his armor... But still, this point is lost in translation. But you can't talk magic without...

    Rings - Well, Mandarin does also relies on his scientific genius and martial arts, but rings what we know him for. Really to some Mandarin is just dude with awesome rings. Well, to be fair there is reasons why Star Lord's guns don't shoot fire and ice, or why virtually all adaptations turns ring powers into more vague magic ones. They're too complicated, and movie would struggle to show off all of them. And if it wouldn't what's even the point? I don't even know how Iron Man is fair opponent against them, since I only read 2 comics with Mandarin - in one Mandarin's magic artifact turned against him just as he was about to disintegrate Iron Man and in another he was quickly grabbed by surrounding him people when Tony disabled mind control ring with laser. The point is, rings would probably be modified and well, whenever you're looking for wizard in fancy clothes or maniac with powerful alien artifacts on hands, you're getting them soon enough. Would be a shame if Mandarin resembled too much either of them. So poor dude must settle JUST for fire, super strength and regeneration.

    Overall, decent adaptation all thing considering. Now, pardon me while I'll complain that AIM aren't genius beekeepers lead by what looks like Frost Giant's head in an infant's body.

    - Faceless Enigma

    1. Agreed. I waited to talk about Killian until the nest post, but I think Killian really fits the core of the character: a man who reinvented himself as a technological and economic force to be reckoned with, who uses deception and his massive intellect to achieve his goals.

      And you know what? You reminded me that I didn't even talk about AIM in my review. Whoops! Although, that kind of says a lot about AIM's recognizablity....

    2. I remember being more unhappy with AIM then Mandarin when I first watched.

      So bottom line, its less "Iron Man doesn't face his iconic enemy" and more "Iron Man doesn't fight wizard".

    3. Of course, the MCU's official policy is "magic doesn't exist." At least, it WAS. We'll have to see how Dr. Strange handles things.