On the Twitters, Tim O’Neil and I had a discussion/argument about the use of the Mandarin in Iron Man 3. Tim (that link is to his Mandarin essay) is a huge fan of the Mandarin, considers him to be Tony Stark’s definitive archenemy, and thinks the movie did wrong by him. I am a huge fan of the Mandarin, consider him to be Tony Stark’s definitive archenemy, and think the movie handled him in the only way the movies can do it. SPOILERS FOLLOW FOR IRON MAN 3 SO STOP READING NOW IF YOU DON’T WANT TO BE SPOILED AND STUFF.
I realize this might make explaining why we’re arguing about this a little esoteric, but bear with me. Both Tim and I love the Mandarin. He is a great character. In the movie, the Mandarin is initially a terrorist warlord played by Ben Kingsley – which might make you go “huh,” because the Mandarin in the comics is Chinese – but rather than have it be white-washing, the movie decides that Ben Kingsley’s Mandarin is a false front, a total fiction created by the cynical Aldridge Killian of A.I.M., in order to sell weapons to the government. Ben Kingsley’s Mandarin is actually a junkie actor named Trevor, and by the end of the movie Killian proclaims that he is the Mandarin. So, to sum up, Movie Mandarin is nothing like Comics Mandarin.
Here’s the thing. The Mandarin is, let us be honest, racially problematic. Even with numerous talented comics creators doing their damnedest to reclaim him from the character’s totally racist origins, you can still define the Mandarin, entirely honestly and fairly, as “an evil Chinese warlord.” Because that is what he is. You can shake him up a little, tinker with his motivations a bit (later writers have divided him from Chinese culture to turn him into a self-imagined ruler of the “proper China” that really only exists in his head), but the Mandarin is evil, Chinese, and a warlord. That doesn’t mean he has to be a racist cariacature, of course – after all, Chinese people can be evil just like white people can. But it does mean you have to be very careful in how you write him.
Tim’s position is that Movie Mandarin does Comics Mandarin a disservice in that Comics Mandarin is great, and I won’t rehash his reasons (go read his essay). My counterposition is that Iron Man 3 can be read quite acceptably as setup for Iron Man 4. (Granted, they might not run with this, but: the only major villains Tony has left are Ghost, Controller, and Living Laser. Okay, and Fin Fang Foom, but they’re not gonna do Fin Fang Foom.)
Think about it. We already know, from the movies, that the Ten Rings exist as a terrorist group in the Movie Marvelverse; Killian appropriated some of their imagery for his “Mandarin.” People who culturally appropriate one thing will generally appropriate many things instead, as a rule; it would certainly follow that there is an actual Mandarin out there in the world, one who really does understand the value of subtlety (which Killian bragged about, and then immediately dropped the moment he felt like it) and who more than likely was either amused or irritated with these penny-ante second-raters using his name, possibly both. A man who has the one thing it has been made clear Tony really fears: something Tony cannot account for or control (i.e. the alien technology in his rings). And a man who not only has a connection to the men who stole his name, but – through the Ten Rings organization he most likely controls – is directly responsible for turning a rich wastrel genius into Iron Man.
This slow-burn introduction would make the “real” Mandarin all the more impressive when he does show up in the movies. It immediately puts him in a position of superiority, which is not easy for Hollywood to accomplish for a visual minority in the first place, but I think this is the only way you can do it. It makes him, essentially, into Iron Man’s equivalent of Loki: the villain you can’t simply kill off because he knows too much and in the future you might need him. I don’t know if the Marvel movies will go this route, but – it works.