I've seen Iron Man 3 twice now, and each time the audience has reacted the loudest to the same scene, which might actually be the quietest in the film. Tony Stark, using a bunch of gadgets he conjured up at Home Depot, breaks into the Miami compound where the Mandarin is hiding. He arrives in the bedroom to find the man himself… who, it turns out, is a dopey British actor named Trevor Slattery who can't even be trusted with a real gun.
The scene is the film's comic high point, and proof of how much a great actor can enliven a giant blockbuster that you'd think would be about anything but acting. With a few raised eyebrows and a lot of fluttering hand gestures ("He is… but he isn't. He is…. but he isn't.") Kingsley manages to tear down months and even years of hype around the Mandarin-- hype that director Shane Black and Marvel Studios deliberately put out there even while knowing they had this huge twist up their sleeve.
Look at how much they had us running around in circles trying to suss out mysteries about The Mandarin that didn't exist. When the movie debuted footage at Comic Con last summer, we saw the ten rings on Ben Kingsley's hands, confirming years of speculation that the terrorist group fronted by The Mandarin in the comics would play a role in Iron Man 3. When the first trailer debuted last fall, we tied ourselves up in knots wondering what it meant that the Mandarin appeared to have a tattoo of Captain America's shield on the back of his neck. When his character poster debuted in February, we couldn't figure out why he was wearing camouflage pants along with the expected mystical Asian stuff.
This kind of speculation is standard operating procedure in the world of movie blogs, and Marvel has spent years learning how to work around that stuff, doing everything from laying false trails to shooting surprise scenes two weeks before the movie came out. But the Mandarin twist is the first time they've worked this kind of gamesmanship into the plot of the actual movie. If you don't follow endless behind-the-scenes gossip, the reveal of the Mandarin's true identity was just an excellent comic beat and a wry commentary on the fear mongering and showmanship behind terrorism. If you're the kind of person who's been following rumors about Iron Man 3 since it started production-- say, the kind of person who runs this website-- it was a cheerful but unmistakable middle finger: you spent all this time trying to find the man behind the curtain, and he doesn't even exist.
As someone who went into Iron Man 3 exhausted, convinced I had seen all the best scenes in marketing, I loved it. As someone who gamely participates in the speculation but would really rather not know the plot twists in advances, I loved it even more. I have no idea how to relate to the Marvel comics fans who felt betrayed by the movie's portrayal of the Mandarin-- though we'll be talking about them later today. As someone whose job it is to stay a few steps ahead of Hollywood whenever possible, I was just thrilled to see a movie totally, completely pull one over on me. It's the kind of trick that can only work once-- you'd better believe we'll all be skeptical about whatever villain is presented as the center of The Avengers 2. But luckily Kevin Feige, Shane Black and everyone else at Marvel picked the exact right time to perfectly punk every one of us who thought we had it all figured out.