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Defending ‘Iron Man 3”s Big Plot Twist

Defending 'Iron Man 3''s Big Plot Twist

This article contains MASSIVE SPOILERS for “Iron Man 3.” Like big enough to fly an Iron Patriot through. Reader discretion is advised.

It’s weeks like this where comic book fans make me a little ashamed to be a comic book fan. 

A small but vocal group of comic book lovers are deeply upset with “Iron Man 3,” the excessively entertaining $200 million-plus budgeted superhero spectacular. They are not upset with the movie because it’s bad — that would be a legitimate complaint — they’re upset because it’s good, but not in the same way that the original comic books were good. Specifically, they’re upset about The Mandarin, and about how the character is different in the movie than in the comics.

Admittedly, he is very different. In the comics, The Mandarin is one of Iron Man’s oldest and deadliest foes. A Chinese scientist, martial artist, supposed descendant of Genghis Khan, and supremely angry dude, he wields ten rings with ten different powers — fire, ice, disintegration, etc. He’s fought Tony Stark on countless occasions dating back to the mid-1960s when he was created by writer Stan Lee and artist Don Heck. He’s not to be trifled with. He puts the super in supervillain.

In “Iron Man 3,” the figure that most closely resembles The Mandarin of the comics is played by Ben Kingsley, who sports a Baptist preacher’s Southern accent, flowing Asian-style robes, and a vaguely Osama bin Laden-ish long, scraggly beard. He also shares bin Laden’s penchant for self-aggrandizing videos, which he submits to the media as a means of terrorizing the world’s populace. For a while, The Mandarin seems every bit the arch-nemesis longtime Iron Man fans had come to expect.

Then writer/director Shane Black pulls a swerve: The Mandarin isn’t the Mandarin, he’s a drug-addicted theater actor named Trevor, who was hired by the movie’s true villain — Guy Pearce’s Aldrich Killian — to portray a terrorist he invented in order to deflect attention from his real schemes. In “Iron Man 3″‘s final scene, Killian calls himself “The Mandarin,” but his powers, origin, and motivations are substantially different from the Mandarin’s of the comics. And nobody — not Killian, not Trevor, not anybody — ever uses even one of those ten power rings.

Those facts have incensed some cranky comic book fans. You’ll find them in the comments section of just about every “Iron Man 3” review on the Internet; here’s a very typical one from a reader on Badass Digest:

“I hate it because the real comic book mandarin was a super powerful enemy who lusted for world domintation using his super powerful alien rings and also has fin fang foom as an allied, in this case, this mandarin, the one guy pearce did had nothing to do with the original mandarin, it’s like, imagine batman TDK, and the joker it’s a only a silly clown who was created by a mafia organization, and the joker turns out to be ntohig but a cover, I know that it’s different a nolan movie than a marvel movie, but I cry because the mandarin is such a great Iron man nemesis and now I think that it was wasted, despite of how clever was that plot twist or whatever, does anyone knows who the real mandarin was?”

If you want to argue that Black botches the twist, that’s fine. If you want to argue that he telegraphs it or that you suspected it was true all along, that’s fine (I think you’re a liar, but that’s fine). If you want to argue that Killian’s plans make absolutely no sense, that’s definitely fine (and I’m right there with you). But if you dislike “Iron Man 3” purely for the reason that the Mandarin is not “THE Mandarin” that is not fine. On multiple levels.

For one thing, “THE Mandarin” is kind of a racist caricature. And that’s not me talking; that’s Shane Black, the co-writer/director of “Iron Man 3,” who described The Mandarin with those very words way back in 2011 at an appearance at Long Beach Comic-Con. The issues around The Mandarin as he was conceived in 1964 are clearly outlined in an article at io9 entitled “How Big is ‘Iron Man 3”s ‘Fu Manchu’ Problem?” Here’s comic book writer Marjorie M. Liu succinctly summarizing the character:

“The Mandarin is pretty much a direct descendent of the Fu Manchu yellow peril caricature — at best Orientalist, at worst, racist. The diabolic Asiatic is a hoary Hollywood staple — one of many stereotypes that Asian Americana have long had to endure — whether it’s the Fu Manchu, the Kung Fu master, the Dragon Lady, or the bucktooth nerd.”

So to make a “faithful” recreation of “THE Mandarin” is to traffic in some really nasty stereotypes. Yes, I know some very talented recent writers have tried to modernize and reinvent the character in the pages of Marvel Comics. Some of have succeeded (others, I’d argue, haven’t). But either way, by doing “THE Mandarin” you are courting, if not outright endorsing, cultural insensitivity. I think “Iron Man 3” rather brilliantly evades that minefield by using it as the fuel for satire; revealing the Kingsley Mandarin’s mish-mosh of Orientalist imagery as a construction designed to play into ignorant people’s fears. Black suggests we should be far more worried about the well-dressed, amoral CEO than the vaguely defined “Other” of so many bad pieces of pop culture.

But let’s take cultural insensitivity out of the equation for the moment. Even if “THE Mandarin” was a thoroughly positive portrait of Chinese culture, that wouldn’t change the fact that the twist brilliantly subverts all our expectations for a moment that is fun and exciting. True, Kingsley never shoots anybody with his power rings. But he gets to do something even better: he gets to surprise us.

It’s precisely that surprise that is tantamount to treason to this intense strain of comic book fandom (and here the guy with the shrine to Spider-Man in his office thought he had the intense strain of comic book fandom. I guess not). These readers never want to be surprised. They just want to see the comic books they already own recreated on the big screen. 

But filmmakers are not court stenographers, and movies are not transcripts. Sure, power rings are cool. But even without them “Iron Man 3” still has about a dozen different suits of armor, each with their own powers. It also has human bombs, dudes who can melt steel with their hands, and Iron Man saving people falling from Air Force One by turning them into a human version of Barrel of Monkeys. That’s a lot of cool even without the Mandarin zapping people.

As an obsessive comic book reader for most of my life, one of the things I’m fascinated by are the ways in which the characters in comics prove resistant to change. Superman dies — then comes back from the dead. Batman is paralyzed — then gets better and returns to the job. Wolverine loses his adamantium skeleton and devolves into a weird-looking dog-dude — then gets his adamantium claws, along with his normal(ish) face. In comics circles; these storylines and their reversals are referred to as the “illusion of change,” because in comics no deviation from a concept’s status quo is ever truly permanent. Things seem to change, but they never really do.

This week — in which some comic book fans have rejected a really ingenious story because it doesn’t fit into their expectations, and others have thrown a fit because an African-American actor might get cast as the traditionally white Human Torch in an upcoming “Fantastic Four” movie — has given me a new perspective on the illusion of change. It’s not just the characters that resist change; their audience does too. Everything must remain the same, all the time, over and over again. No wonder so many comics feel so tired; they have to be. Their readers demand it.

Part of what I liked about “Iron Man 3” was the fact that it did something different. Where some readers saw a slap in the face, I saw a refreshing change. If you’re going to a movie just to see everything you already know recreated note for note, why even bother going in the first place? Save your $13 and reread the old books. Those will never change.

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