MAJOR SPOILER ALERT: Don’t read until you’ve seen ‘Iron Man 3’.
I recently saw “Iron Man 3.” I wasn’t looking forward to it in particular. I loved the original but thought the sequel was an afterthought, merely serving as a set-up to The Avengers.
But “Iron Man 3” was quite enjoyable, and that’s in large part a testament to the writing/direction of Shane Black (“Kiss Kiss Bang Bang”, “Lethal Weapon.”)
But Black’s cleverest plot twists was a big buzz kill; relegating Tony Stark’s arch-nemesis The Mandarin to a punchline. Turns out he was just a Trojan Horse, a distraction for Aldrich Killian (played by Guy Pearce), to exact his agenda with his Extremis virus. And while Killian claimed he was in fact “the real Mandarin”, it still rang hollow. His origin and powers make him a completely different character from the comics. It was a cheat.
But bringing The Mandarin to the screen was always going to be a tricky proposition. And here’s why:
The Mandarin debuted in “Tales of Suspense #50” in 1964. The story was created by Marvel architect Stan Lee and artist Don Heck. The character was a Chinese orphan, who after feeling abused by his government, wanted world domination. He discovers a crashed space-ship containing 10 rings of immense power, and uses this technology to his own end.
The Mandarin was a product of his era, a deliberate or subconscious descendant of the literary character Fu Manchu. Comic books had been prone to Asian villains during World War II, creating painful stereotypes like The Yellow Fang.
America was in full-blown Anti-Communist Red Scare paranoia in the 60’s, and the fear of Asian culture in the aftermath of WWII and The Korean War was still prevalent. The ensuing Vietnam Conflict provided even more grist for the mill (and inspired Iron Man’s origin as well).
It was also at the height of James Bond popularity, and he was very much a “Bond-villain” in his international scope and quest for power.
A characterization like that would backfire in the 21st century for claims of cultural insensitivity, not to mention hurt its Asian box-office. And Black noted that the character was in many ways a racist caricature.
But then the trailers hit; and the Mandarin looked like Osama Bin Laden, the big-bad boogeyman of Muslim Extremism. How could that stereotype be any less offensive and inflammatory?
But that was his genius move, because The Mandarin was but a sham, a character used to stoke America’s fear of another Muslim terrorist, hiding Killian’s real plans.
All well and good, but The Mandarin is Iron Man’s Arch-Villain. Think of it this way; could you imagine watching “The Dark Knight” and seeing The Joker say to Batman “Whoops, the joke’s on you!” and just turn out to be a mere pawn hired by a lesser villain?
This dashing of expectations was bound to cause controversy.
Alien Power Rings
Remember the last film about a human finding a crashed alien ship and a power ring? Yep, “Green Lantern” was a big flop for DC and Warner Bros. I have to wonder if the execs at Marvel Films were afraid of losing their box-office winning streak by anything that looked remotely related to that travesty.
And Black didn’t have to use the Mandarin. He could have made up his own villain for the bait-and-switch, and not mess with a character that held such high expectations.
But most folks have never heard of The Mandarin, and liked the surprise. Movies are for the masses and not just fanboys. That’s just the reality; it’s all about making $, creative liberties be damned. And after clearing the $1 Billion mark in under 2 weeks, it’s mission accomplished.
For the fanboys it feels like a bit of a gyp, although Black did that rare thing; he did the unexpected, which is needed to keep comic book movies from being overly formulaic and predictable.
Perhaps The Mandarin is best left as a dated curiosity, and making him a joke was the only way Black and Marvel thought he could be palatable.
Regardless, fans are still pretty bummed and Black is still in damage control.
Were you disappointed in “Iron Man 3″ or how The Mandarin was handled? Or did you enjoy the take on the character? Sound off below. And check back next month when I’ll be reviewing “Man Of Steel“ and have some other comic book related goodness in store.