WARNING: We’ve thoroughly dissected Iron Man 3 in a series of articles dedicated to The Mandarin. Stop reading now if you haven’t seen Shane Black’s sequel, because this article will give away important plot details and secrets you don’t want to know.
Shane Black’s handling of The Mandarin has become the main topic of conversation following the release of Iron Man 3, despite Gwyneth Paltrow’s best efforts to generate buzz for a dead-in-the-water Pepper Potts standalone. Our own Katey and Eric both penned passionate articles proclaiming the Mandarin “twist” the greatest thing since sliced bread, planting their lips firmly on the cheeks of Black’s derriere for concocting a cheap marketing trick that “punked” the Internet’s fiendish community of spoiler-happy trolls.
Credit where credit is due: Black’s reveal that “The Mandarin” is little more than a feeble stage queen (played by Sir Ben Kingsley) took me by surprise. All roads leading into Iron Man 3 suggested a legitimate confrontation between Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) and his classic nemesis. Black successfully turned the tables on his audience, baiting them with the promise of a widely-anticipated character, then switching to a foe who had existed in the shadows until it was time for the film to screen.
Except in doing so, Black (and Marvel) also sufficiently wiped their ass with decades of Iron Man history, reducing Shell Head’s lone significant adversary to a punchline.
The debate over The Mandarin seems to divide audience members into two camps: Those who read Iron Man comics, and those who know the hero from the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The former have been hoping to see The Mandarin on the big screen ever since Jon Favreau launched the franchise in 2008, combing the initial Iron Man for clues regarding The Ten Rings.
“If you were forced to say, ‘Who is Iron Man’s greatest foe,’ you’d probably have to say The Mandarin,” Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige admits in a fantastic EW read. “It’s not because he’s been in a ton of quintessentially classic stories — because he hasn’t been, really. He’s just been around a lot. He just goes back a long, long time.”
His greatest foe. Consider that. It’s not an exaggeration to say that Mandarin is to Iron Man what Lex Luthor, The Joker or Norman Osborn is to Superman, Batman and Spider-Man. He is the classic antagonist. He is open to interpretation, for sure. As Eric points out in his column, the identity of The Mandarin as a “Yellow Peril” threat is completely outdated and in need of revision. But Black’s “bold” maneuver to eliminate The Mandarin – or worse, to absorb him into the role of Aldrich Killian – is a clumsy, ill-planned mistake.
Again, I’ll admit that in the moment, the Mandarin reveal made me laugh, primarily for the way that Kingsley slips comfortably into the diminished-antagonist role. The “big picture” idea Black and screenwriter Drew Pearce want to convey about the portrait of foreign threats (and the hollowness that exists when you unearth them) is significant, and if it ended right there, I think I might be OK with it.
The more I thought about the reveal, however, and the impact it has not only on Iron Man 3 but on the character’s cinematic legacy, the more angry I became with the brazen handling of an important villain. Because without The Mandarin, you’re left with Guy Pearce’s Aldrich Killian … and all he is is another recycling of Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges) or Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell), genius tech wizards who were slighted by Stark at some point and now want to use similar technologies to humble the billionaire playboy philanthropist.
We’ve seen that already. And after two bouts with generic, Caucasian, disgruntled scientists, Iron Man deserves more.
The Mandarin could have been different. Following in the wake of The Avengers, which introduced an alien threat to our very human hero, The Mandarin should have been more of a mystical enemy who challenged Stark’s ability to counter technology with more technology. Yes, Killian has Extremis-enhanced powers. But he also has a game plan that’s more convoluted that the final two Matrix movies, combined.
The existence of The Mandarin as a legitimate external threat made sense when he operated outside of Killian’s personal vendetta. The first half of Iron Man 3 paints the villain as a terrorist with an axe to grind against the United States, specifically against our President (William Sadler). It’s part of the reason why Rhodes (Don Cheadle) tells Stark this isn’t superhero stuff, meaning The Avengers aren’t needed – it’s simply War on Terrorism stuff. The Mandarin, in turn, takes to our nation’s airwaves to antagonize our country’s leader, and he only involves Stark once Happy Hogan (Favreau) is caught up in an Extremis blast … something Killian couldn’t have predicted.
Why does Killian have an axe to grind with the President? Why is he attacking Air Force One, kidnapping our Commander In Chief, detonating bombs in major U.S. cities and tossing innocents into the air off the coast of North Carolina? His beef is supposed to be with Stark the entire time. Why does he even have to bother creating The Mandarin? Shouldn’t he just cut to the chase and target Stark?
Because the Vice President’s daughter is missing a limb.
Seriously. That’s the ham-fisted smash cut we get to help explain The Mandarin/Killian’s aggression towards the U.S., justifying the reign of terror this villain has unleashed on innocent citizens for the first half of the movie. A little girl needs to re-grow a limb using the Extremis technology. That’s why the VP sells out our entire country.
Outside of that, Killian’s lone motivation appears to be that Stark snubbed him at a party in Switzerland decades ago. That’s it. Why the elaborate scheme of creating an alternate threat in The Mandarin? No real reason. Forcing Killian to declare himself as The Mandarin only creates more questions than the movie bothers to answer.
Why would Killian adopt a moniker that has blatant Asian undertones? The name worked for the character at the time he was created, but makes no sense is it’s adopted by Pearce’s contemporary character. If Killian is supposed to be the threat the entire time, why would he even take a meeting with Pepper early on in the film? What if Pepper had said she adored the Extremis idea and wanted to move forward with it? Would the rest of the movie have cancelled out? And why does Killian/Mandarin have to wait until Tony gives out his address on the news to attack. Isn’t Stark’s identity – and, therefore, his residences – public knowledge? Stark calling out “The Mandarin” on live television is yet another useless red herring that maintains the ruse of the Mandarin’s real identity until the reveal … but then end up looking very silly once you think back on them in hindsight.
My biggest problem with the handling of The Mandarin, however, comes down to the fact that I believe Iron Man fans were cheated out of a legitimate confrontation between Robert Downey Jr.’s version of Iron Man and an interpretation of The Mandarin that would have worked for the MCU’s modern settings. I think of Christian Bale’s interrogation-room scene with Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight, or Tobey Maguire confronting Willem Dafoe atop a bridge in Sam Raimi’s first Spider-Man. These are seminal moments for fans who not only read comics but respect the narratives that enriched the history and identity of these Marvel superheroes.
Shane Black’s handling of The Mandarin was a cute trick, and if they only wanted to deflate the mysticism of The Mandarin by admitting this dated character doesn’t work in this timeline, I would have been OK with that message. But by cramming a classic villain like The Mandarin into a secondary character like Killian – who should have his own agenda, and flails when he’s forced to absorb the Mandarin’s motivations – I think Iron Man 3 does a disservice to Stark, Killian, A.I.M., Extremis, The Mandarin and Marvel fans, as a whole.