Iron Man 3 opened to a $175 million weekend, so I assume all of you have seen it by now. If you haven’t, reading further is not a good idea.
Robert Downey Jr returned as Tony Stark this past weekend, this time in a movie directed and co-written by Kiss Kiss Bang Bang‘s Shane Black. It is easily the best Iron Man movie to date, for some of the same reasons that many comic book fans are calling it the worst: it discards all expectations of what a comic book movie—and particularly what a comic book movie villain—should be, and presents itself instead as a somewhat satirical movie about identity crises with a pulpy mystery plot that involves red herrings and twists, buddy cop action, black humor, and an idiosyncratic tone. It just happens to have a superhero as the lead.
Iron Man 3 is much closer in spirit to Kiss Kiss Bang Bang than to Iron Man and Iron Man 2. Let’s take a moment to appreciate just how cool that is, and admire Marvel’s iron balls. Rather than try to assimilate Shane Black into the Marvel movie machine, they reshaped an already very successful and well-oiled franchise to fit Black’s style.
Iron Man 3 fulfills a promise made by the Phase One movies, that Marvel was going to take distinct directors and let their personal styles influence what kind of movies they were going to make. Kenneth Branagh’s Thor has the vibrancy of a modernized Shakespear play. Joe Johnston’s Captain America is a pulpy swashbuckling throwback. The Avengers contains all the beloved quips, sudden tonal shifts and asskicking women from the Joss Whedon playbook. None of them, however, took it as far as Iron Man 3 did, in which Black’s pursuit of the tone he’s known for allowed for one of Marvel Comic’s major characters to be fundamentally altered and mocked.
In case you’re not familiar: the comic book version of Mandarin is a wealthy aristocrat who is a genius scientist, a master of martial arts, and possesses ten magical rings he stole from an alien spaceship, each capable of a different enormous feat of power. It’s been said that to make an Iron Man movie, he needs to be in it, and that was always the plan.
When Marvel announced they were making the first Iron Man movie in 2006, they announced that Mandarin would be the villain, and he was in the script up until a couple of months before principal photography, when director Jon Favreau assembled a think tank of Marvel’s top comic book writers to help refine the script. Mark Millar convinced Favreau to take out the Mandarin in order to ground the film in a more techno-arms-race plot, and so the script was heavily rewritten to make Jeff Bridges’ Obadiah Stane, originally a supporting character, the villain. This conveniently allowed them to avoid having to tip-toe around the Mandarin’s ethnic identity (do they update him to be a contemporary Middle Eastern terrorist, the way the first movie updated Stark’s Vietnam origin to the Gulf War? Then why would he call himself Mandarin?).
The biggest twist of the movie is hugely divisive, and the accusation being thrown that Marvel somehow dropped the ball and “fucked it up” tickles me, because there’s no way that Marvel didn’t know that they would get the reaction they are getting now. They knew that hardcore fans would be emotionally affected one way or another by the twist (pleasantly, in my case), and they did it anyway, because they wanted to try something different, they wanted to surprise people. So they engineered an ingenious bait-and-switch marketing campaign that didn’t just hide the twist—it misdirected expectations around the movie entirely.
The trailer hypes up a dark, dire movie about a menacing Mandarin destroying Tony Stark’s life and terrorizing the United States. Instead, we get the funniest entry in the series, set during Christmas, with a precocious child as Stark’s sidekick, and the Mandarin being a non-villain.
At the end of the second act, Stark breaks into the Mandarin’s palace to confront this hyped-up supervillain, only to find not an intimidating terrorist leader, but a pathetic, goofy English actor named Trevor Slattery hired to play the part of an intimidating terrorist leader. The real villain is actually Aldrich Killian, the entrepreneur-scientist who uses terrorist bombings as a cover story for the explosive side effects of his Extremis project. Killian targets the President in the film’s climax not because he wants to teach America a lesson, as “The Mandarin” claims in his threatening videos, but because he and the Vice President are in a bizarre 24-style cahoots to replace the President with one of their own.
On a surface level, the political commentary of the twist is quite obvious here: You all believed that scary Muslims are the enemy, but that’s just a distraction, and the real enemy are the corporations in bed with the government.
That’s cheap, though. Distilled in that manner, it reads like a left-wing activist’s slogan that wouldn’t fit on a banner and is pretty much an exhausted satire at this point. The Trevor reveal is better than that. The satirical bite of that twist is not so much directed at American politics, but at how the American news and entertainment media often work hand-in-hand to shape villains for American heroes to fight against—Stan Lee’s creation of the Mandarin character itself a part of this very habit.
First appearing in 1964’s Tales of Suspense #50, Lee’s Mandarin capitalized on the culturally ignorant mixture of fear and fascination the West had of the Oriental East: at one point in the story, the Chinese Mandarin boasts of being the world’s best karate master. It continues the long, but these days archaic, tradition of the Yellow Peril.
Lest we forget, Iron Man was born in the jungles of Vietnam in 1963. The United States had only just recently gotten itself involved in the conflict, and the anti-war demonstrations didn’t start for another couple of years. The villain in the origin story was a North Vietnamese dictator and his cronies who very much looked like leftovers from World War II comics’ depiction of the Japanese (subsequent reprints of this origin story recolored the Vietnamese’s yellow skin to a more realistic color).
Mandarin’s original appearance wasn’t purposefully racist like so many Yellow Peril characters are (Don Heck’s design for the character was not as grotesque a caricature as Asians were usually portrayed, and Stan Lee even established that he’s not allied with the Chinese government), but the genesis of the character itself is inherently xenophobic. The Mandarin came into being at a time when Red China was a mysterious and suspicious land for many Americans. Naturally, to have a villain based there would be a shortcut to establishing a fearsome villain.
This trope has been around since the dawn of the 20th century, mostly a product of the xenophobia that came with the forming of Chinese immigrant communities in both America and the UK, but ultimately popularized by pulp novelist Sax Rohmer in his creation of Fu Manchu in 1912. This pulp serial trope was quickly adopted by American comics, because what were those early comics, if not illustrated pulps?
The first issue of Detective Comics, future home of the Batman, featured exactly that kind of story. The Flash Gordon comic strip impressively managed to invoke the trope in its creation of Ming the Merciless despite being set in outer space. The trope then evolved into anti-Japanese propaganda during World War II, and represented anti-communist sentiments after the war. Our pop culture doesn’t invent foreign villains out of sheer racism and hatred, but merely as an attempt to piggyback on the success of the villains already picked and established by their counterparts in the news media. Whoever the news prop up and regurgitate accompanied by scary headlines becomes the supervillain of the week in the American public’s consciousness, and storytellers are understandably eager to tap into that consciousness, especially when you’re in the business of selling heroes.
Rohmer himself was once a reporter, and claimed to have based Fu Manchu on the Limehouse gangsters he covered for his newspaper. Yet his fiction work only fueled the racism against the Chinese further, because there’s a symbiotic relationship in how the news media often look to pop culture for evidence of an issue’s significance to the public. A modern example would be how 24 was molded by the paranoid Fox Newsian hellscape, only for the strangely politically influential show to itself become a contentious talking point on the news. Together, they worked in tandem to ingrain the public with what a War on Terror looks like, and it has stuck.
It is this point that Iron Man 3 deftly makes, and they roped the fans into making the point for them. After the Trevor Slattery reveal, Killian explains to Stark that the image of the fictional Mandarin he created was designed to appeal to the pre-conceived notion of who Americans already believe to be “the villain.” Case in point: when JARVIS finally locates the source of Mandarin’s illegal broadcasts, Stark asks where he has to fly to. Pakistan? Kuwait? Iran? When JARVIS tells him that it’s Miami, Stark immediately assumes that JARVIS is broken, just because the Mandarin is not hiding in some “terrorist country.” It’s an assumption that Marvel hoped we’d make, too, from all the ads that repeat Kingsley’s “Some people call me a terrorist” line.
We can see this in the way the Mandarin is dressed, which is an amalgamation of America’s past enemies: he wears a Chinese-style oriental robe, a Japanese topknot, Gaddafi shades, and sports Bin Laden’s beard while sitting next to Russian rifles. This hodge-podge approach serves not only to obfuscate the character’s ethnicity so as to not associate him with any particular nationality, but also to deliver a little showbiz humor in how he seems put together by focus group testing on what a “bad guy” should look like. The fact that Iron Man fans took this portrayal seriously is part of the elaborate joke, but it’s not necessarily their fault. We are always prone to collective boogeymen in our culture that are further propagated by the media, and they come in many forms.
Last month, the Boston marathon fell victim to senseless bombings. In the panic, an injured Saudi Arabian man who was running away from the explosions was tackled by bystanders who assumed that he was the culprit, partly because he was fleeing, but mostly because he was brown. Boston PD questioned the guy and cleared him, but the New York Post decided to report that the man was a suspect in custody. At Logan Airport, a plane was returned to the gate and two men were escorted off, for the crime of making other passengers nervous by speaking Arabic. Once word got out that the perps were two young men who identified as Muslim, hilariously off-base racist comments went flying all over the web. I had a brief tiff with a couple of strangers on twitter—productive, I know—where I actually felt stupid having to point out to them the absurdity of calling the bombers “sand niggers” (they were Caucasian) and asking for the surviving bomber to be deported (he’s a US citizen). It was hard for all of these people, perhaps, to reconcile the image of a handsome clean-cut white teenage American with the feared Muslim bomber moniker.
These days, Yellow Peril comes more in the form of fearing China’s economic flourish, perhaps no more overtly stated than in the ludicrous “Chinese Professor” video made by the Citizens Against Government Waste during the 2010 midterm elections, that resurfaced on news channels during the 2012 election debates.
In the comics, this is reflected in the Ultimate universe’s “modern” interpretation of the Iron Man villain by writer Nathan Edmondson. This Ultimate version is Mandarin International, an all-powerful Chinese conglomerate that boosted Stark Industries to success in its early days, and later returned to take over and destroy Stark’s company. In the age of post-recession, the American fear of the Chinese “other” is no longer about might as it once was, but rather prosperity.
This is ironic, of course, since a Chinese conglomerate actually co-financed Iron Man 3, in exchange for a tacked on four-minute sequence released only in China that has Tony Stark turning to Chinese medical care to fix his heart, to which his doctor patriotically declares, “China will not fail him” (these scenes were not written or directed by Shane Black). Maybe when time comes for Marvel to revamp the Mandarin again, he’ll be an insidious film producer who ruins Hollywood movies, like a Chinese Bowfinger.
Was it worth it to sink a major character for the sake of making a satirical point? Maybe not, but then again, I don’t think it was there just to satirize the media. Aside from being drop dead hilarious, it was also a clear signal that maybe we shouldn’t expect the expected with Marvel.
It can be argued that Killian’s monologue about evil needing a face was also a post-modern comment on superhero movie fans needing a tangible villain for the hero to fight. Iron Man 3 has a number of obstacles for Stark: his sudden anxiety attacks, his strained relationship with Pepper, him being stripped of his suit and his wealth for an extended period, thus having to go back to basics. The major theme of the movie asks, if he has reinvented himself from the Stark he was prior to the first movie to the superhero Iron Man, then does he still have an identity without his suits? As Captain America asked in The Avengers, “Big man in a suit of armor. Take that away, what are you?” While Whedon gave us a memorably flippant quip to answer that question, Black has made a movie all about Stark finding a satisfying answer for himself.
Yeah yeah, but who’s he going to punch? That’s what we want to know! That’s sort of the issue with it. It’s the third movie of a trilogy, and typically it’s the time for franchises to go really big and present the most powerful villains. Marvel knew that’s what fans wanted, so they (seemingly) gave us Kingsley’s Mandarin, teasing his status as Iron Man’s greatest foe, to satiate the need for a showy villain.
“Once the big dude with the hammer fell out of the sky, subtlety’s kind of had its day,” Killian said, as if commenting on his own shortcomings. After The Avengers‘ massive third act battle, people wouldn’t have accepted a villain as plain as Aldrich Killian (even if he does breathe fire), despite the fact that Killian’s rocketing confidence is a more appropriate character counterpoint to Stark’s diminishing one than some foreign terrorist, so the Mandarin ruse was necessary to build up the momentum, both for Killian and for Marvel. Far from being a mishandling, the Trevor Slattery twist accomplished exactly what they wanted it to do, and made the story all the better for it.
The fact that they did that gives me great hope for the future of Marvel movies, because it means they’re not averse to toying with their approach to these superhero films in order to keep them fresh, even at the risk of bucking what already worked before. The Captain America sequel will move it from a swashbuckling throwback to a contemporary conspiracy thriller. Thor‘s sequel steps away from a Shakesperean family tragedy to a world-hopping fantasy epic. Guardians of the Galaxy is set to be a space-faring adventure separate from the Avengers’ world. Who knows what other unexpected genres the Phase 3 movies will bring?
Variety is important if they want to play the long game.