To begin with, I’m going to issue the obligatory spoiler warning: Iron Man 3 has been released in some markets, but not all. So if you have not seen the film, please be aware that this article will contain significant spoilers for key plot elements of the movie. If you have not seen the movie and don’t want to be spoiled, please turn away now.
With Iron Man 3, Shane Black did not have an enviable task. He had to follow up after Jon Favreau’s first two Iron Man films with Favreau looking over his shoulder the entire time (Favreau was not only a producer, but also cast in the movie, once more reprising his role as Tony’s bodyguard/driver, Happy Hogan). Not only that, but this was the first Marvel film after Joss Whedon raised the bar for superhero movies everywhere with The Avengers, as well as kick off Phase Two of Marvel’s cinematic universe.
Ever since the first film, fans of the Iron Man comics (such as myself) have been wondering whether or not we’d ever get to see the Mandarin. And if we did, how exactly would he be portrayed? Having a character who essentially resurrects the Fu Manchu Yellow Peril stereotype would not go over well at all with audiences, especially Asians, and that’s an important consideration.
Black himself was fairly blunt with his opinions on the Mandarin, referring to him as a “racist caricature.” And while he started off like that, dismissing the entirety of the Mandarin’s nearly fifty-year history discounts some of the stories by great writers who have attempted to bring the Mandarin away from his Yellow Peril roots.
So when it was announced that Ben Kingsley, an English actor of Indian descent, would play the Mandarin, my eyebrows went up. On the one hand, white-washing of Asian characters is all-too disturbingly common in film and TV. And even though Kingsley is of mixed race, casting an English/Indian man as a character whose name comes from a Chinese word is still problematic. Especially given the large number of Asian actors who would have done an incredible job in this role (Tony Leung, Anthony Wong, Chow Yun-Fat, Ken Watanabe, or Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa are just a few names who immediately come to mind). And casting a white guy as an Asian character, even a stereotypical one, isn’t exactly a better way of doing it—just look at Boris Karloff as Fu Manchu, John Wayne as Genghis Khan, or…dear god…Mickey Rooney as Mr. Yunioshi. In many cases, these were considered to make it even more offensive. And it’s a practice that still continues to this day, with Dragonball Evolution, The Last Airbender, and 21 serving as some notable examples (as well as the continued controversy regarding the live-action adaptation of Akira).
On the other hand, there is no doubt that Kingsley is an incredible actor. And once more information was revealed about Iron Man 3’s version of the Mandarin, instead of just being a white guy in yellowface, it was more that he was a westerner who went off the reservation and has adopted these terror motifs from different parts of the world. As Black himself said, “He surrounds himself with dragons and symbols of warlords and Chinese iconography because he wants to represent this sort of prototypical terrorist who—we use as the example Colonel Kurtz from Apocalypse Now—may have been an American, may have been a British National, someone who is out there doing field work, supervising atrocities for the intelligence community who went nuts in the field and became this sort of devotee of war tactics, and now has surrounded himself with a group of people over which he presides, and the only thing that unifies them is this hatred of America.”
That’s something I can definitely get behind. It’s still true to the basic concept of the Mandarin (back in the 60s, the Iron Man/Mandarin dynamic was very rooted in the Cold War, so updating that to global terrorism and anti-Americanism is a good move), but manages to avoid the problematic Yellow Peril stereotypes.
So how did it work? Well, for the first half of the movie, remarkably well. Kingsley’s Mandarin was creepy, ruthless, and an incredibly-striking threat. Despite my desire to see an East Asian actor in the role, and to see the Mandarin using his traditional Makluan power rings, I found myself extremely impressed. The somewhat-cartoony voice we heard in the initial trailers was not the final version. In the film, the Mandarin speaks, as Tony says, “like a Baptist preacher.” It provides a contrast to his overall appearance and fits really well. He’s addressed as “The Master” by his followers, including Guy Pearce’s Aldrich Killian. He speaks of American atrocities throughout history and parallels these with similar atrocities commited against American interests.
And then when Tony Stark finally has a chance to confront the Mandarin, what he finds instead is a drug-addled British actor in a t-shirt and shorts who literally nods off while talking to Stark. It’s such a moment of utter disbelief that even Tony and Rhodey comment on how disappointing it is. It’s the kind of thing that would be a wonderful twist in a movie that parodied superheroes, but in a movie that’s supposed to be as serious as Iron Man 3 has been built up as up until this point, it just brings the entire narrative to a screeching halt. To go back to the Colonel Kurtz comparison Black made, this is the kind of thing that you’d expect to see in Tropic Thunder, not Apocalypse Now.
In reality, the true villain has always been Aldrich Killian. And in the final showdown between the Extremis-powered Killian and Tony, Killian is shirtless and there are obvious tattoos of Asian dragons on his shoulders. He even tells Tony that he is the Mandarin. Which kind of felt like it was trying too hard to copy Batman Begins with the twist that Ducard was actually Ra’s al Ghul. But where it was an a-ha! moment in Batman Begins, in Iron Man 3 it just felt like too little, too late.
There were plenty of ways to circumvent the Mandarin’s Yellow Peril stereotype without turning the Mandarin into a total joke of a character controlled by yet another rich white guy. It kind of feels like Black’s statement about the Mandarin being a racist caricature meant that he wanted to portray the character in the most humiliating way he could think of. And in that respect, he, unfortunately, succeeded.
In the end, was turning the Mandarin into a joke a better way of portraying the character? Or would Black have been better served casting a talented East Asian actor who portrayed the Mandarin as not only a terrorist mastermind, but also Tony Stark’s intellectual and physical equal? I would have opted for the latter, and Black’s decision to go with the former has resulted in Marvel’s Phase Two beginning with a fizzle rather than a bang.
This article was first posted on April 26, 2013