I’m talking, of course, about Iron Man 3, which, of course, you’ve seen by now. As a comic-book fan who collected Iron Man in the late ’80’s/early ’90’s (when John Byrne was writing and John Romita, Jr was drawing) and who had seen the two previous movies as well as The Avengers, I was eager to see the latest chapter in Tony Stark’s story. While I enjoyed it to some extent, I was unsatisfied with how the filmmakers handled the Mandarin, Iron Man’s arch-enemy.
I have no issue with Ben Kingsley’s acting: the man is brilliant, and the scene where he threatens to executes an oil executive on live TV is chilling. And I can understand why the movie deviated from the Mandarin’s original comic-book origin of a nobleman who finds 10 rings (each with a different power) in a crashed alien spaceship. But basically, the writers and director of Iron Man 3 just used the Mandarin for his name, and not much else. A lot of other blogs and articles have written about Kingsley’s character not appearing to be Han Chinese, and I’ll just add this: having a non-Chinese character named “The Mandarin” is like having a non-Arab character named “The Sheikh.” I mean, you *can* do that, but why bother?
Director Shane Black has said that he wanted to avoid unfavorable comparisons to the character Fu Manchu, and in that, he succeeded: Kingsley’s Mandarin is much more like Osama bin Laden. But I’m tired of the “supervillain-as-terrorist” trope (which we saw in The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises) and I wanted something more imaginative that stayed true to the character. There are lots of possible ways to portray the Mandarin. He could be:
- The head of a high-tech firm in China that was stealing secrets from Stark’s company, or
- A renegade army general who was now running a criminal empire (one facet of which was the “Ten Rings” terrorist group featured in the first Iron Man movie), or
- A sorcerer, pitting his magic against Stark’s technology, or
- A scientific genius, like Stark, who manufactures 10 rings that give him powers, or
- Combinations thereof
Perhaps. We’ll never know, unless a reboot of the series happens several years from now. What we can be sure of, methinks, is that Black’s decision to go with a non-Chinese villain was at least partially driven by not wishing to risk alienating the Chinese governmental censors who review all foreign films. As noted here, The Avengers made 84 million dollars in China in 2012. That’s 84 million reasons to drop the Mandarin’s original Chinese heritage and to shun any plot points that use sensitive (but timely) issues such as Chinese espionage against American firms. Depending on your point of view, the movie makers would have to either be idiots or tougher than Iron Man’s jockstrap to risk having their cash cow be banned in China.
No way. Not gonna happen. Why do you think the wretched remake of Red Dawn had as its premise North Korea invading America?
Listen, it’s no big deal to me if producers and directors of summer-blockbuster superhero movies want to sell out and avoid stepping on toes. I like Iron Man flicks, but art they ain’t. But let’s just be honest about it, and admit that it has less to do with cultural sensitivity and more to do with wanting to continue raking in Chinese cash. Making the Mandarin non-Chinese isn’t politically correct: it’s economically correct.