Okay, it’s been a month or so since IRON MAN 3 came out, so if you haven’t seen it by now, it’s your own damn fault.
But just in case, consider yourself duly SPOILER WARNED. Because we’re going to talk about the biggest twist in Shane Black’s summer blockbuster IRON MAN movie, the one that had longtime Marvel fans completely shocked, and which was probably one of the better-kept secrets in recent movie memory.
Or in other words, what the hell happened to the Mandarin?
After being ever so lightly hinted at in the first IRON MAN film (with the cleverly named “Ten Rings” terrorist organization, a reference to the comic-book Mandarin’s “magic rings,” the source of his powers), nearly everyone had expected the Mandarin to be the Big Bad in an Iron Man film sooner or later, and with the casting of Oscar winner Sir Ben Kingsley as the Mandarin here in IRON MAN 3, it looked as though that’s what we were getting. But although everyone expected the Mandarin. It’s fair to say that no one expected what we got in the film: that the Mandarin wasn’t really the Mandarin, instead just being a puppet for the world media by the film’s true villain Aldrich Killian.
And this isn’t a slam on the film: that moment when we the audience with Tony Stark discover the truth about the Mandarin, and we hear him speak in his true, British-accented voice and he’s revealed for the sham that he is, is such a sudden reversal of all our expectations. It’s like driving into a brick wall. It works incredibly well when you suddenly realize this isn’t at all the movie you think it is. And Kingsley’s shift from his weirdly accented baritone threat to an almost cockney comic character is hilarious and perfectly played, a great performance.
But that still leaves the question: why do it?
One theory is the aforementioned “magic rings.” While it’s true that it’s not much sillier or less believable than Thor’s magic hammer, the notion of the Mandarin having magic rings that give him everything from hypnotism powers to flames to ice to disintegration powers may have been a little too much of a flight of fancy in the much more grounded universe of the Marvel Studios films.
And the later revision that the magic rings are actually alien artifacts, while giving it a slightly more sci-fi tinge, doesn’t really make that much difference.
No, the bigger problem, I think, is the character himself, which is such a dated product of its time, as both a symbol of Cold War paranoia and an example of stereotypical “evil Oriental” Fu-Manchu style villainy, that there really isn’t much of a way to use the character realistically in the 21st century without striking some sort of an offensive note.
When animation producers tried using the Mandarin as the recurring villain in the ’90s cartoon series, they tried to get around the stereotype issue by making him green, and that worked no better than anything else, quite frankly.
Ironically, for the closest adaptation of the comic-book Mandarin, you’d have to go to porn director Axel Braun, whose willingness to recreate comics costumes and storylines in his line of best-selling “porn parodies” is firmly established. However you may feel about porn, there’s no denying Braun’s geek cred. Take a look at Derrick Pierce as the Mandarin in Braun’s newest release from Vivid, IRON MAN XXX:
The scaled helmet, the rings, the long fingernails, even the giant “M” on his chest (which never made much sense in the comics — if he’s Chinese, why the English “M”?), this is as faithful a version of the Mandarin as you’re ever going to see on screen. And it’s not just the costume: Braun’s Mandarin uses the magic rings in combat with Iron Man (as well as to hypnotize Pepper Potts into some rather scandalous behavior we won’t discuss here…), all pretty much exactly as we’ve always seen the character do in the comics. In fact, it’s only in seeing Braun’s version that you can really appreciate why Shane Black and Marvel Studios chose the route they did for the character. While the classic version of the Mandarin works well in a satire like Braun’s, it would be nearly impossible to take seriously in a big-budget summer blockbuster.
And if you take away the magic rings and the “Chinese warlord” motif, what do you have left? Not much, just a name and an empty suit, which is actually what Ben Kingsley gave us when you think about it.
Everyone talks about the Mandarin being the biggest bad guy in Iron Man’s rogue’s gallery, but that’s not saying a whole lot. Sure, he’s been around forever, but name me a single “great” Mandarin story from IRON MAN.
Still thinking? Me too…