Iron Man 3: Wrestling with Problematic Source Material
If you've perused my site or listened to my podcast, you might be aware that I like superheroes and superhero movies. And for almost 13 years, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has dominated the superhero genre in film. Since these movies are easily the most successful comic book adaptations to come out of Hollywood, every other week I am going to examine one of the films in the series (in order, naturally) and figure out what we as writers can learn from each movie.
This week, we discuss Iron Man 3, a conflicted movie that battles with adapting a problematic villain.
The most iconic Iron Man villain from the comics, a character called "The Mandarin" (an Asian overlord with ten magic rings), hung over the heads of the creators as they made the entire franchise. They pushed it off for as long as they could, because they knew that the villain would be... challenging to adapt.
Jon Favreau, director of the first two films, handled the issue as carefully as he could. He introduced the "Ten Rings" as a terrorist organization, and implied in interviews that this was set-up for the Mandarin. He compared the character to the Emperor in Star Wars, where the main villain was held back until the franchise had evolved to the point where an old man could shoot lightning from his hands. Since the first two Iron Man films are deeply steeped in realism and sci-fi tech, it would not be easy to introduce someone with ten magic rings as Tony Stark's arch-nemesis.
But of course, this is not the real reason. We all know the real reason. The creators knew that the Mandarin of the comics was a racist caricature, and they didn't know how they were going to adapt the character.
Eventually the character premiered in Iron Man 3, where the writers had ultimately decided to wildly modify the character. "The Mandarin" of the film was a mishmash of villainous tropes - his beard (and Ben Kingsley's ethnicity) evoke Taliban leaders, as do his vaguely-Middle-Eastern surroundings. Yet in the words of Tony Stark, he "talks like a Baptist preacher." His clothes are patterned with vaguely-Chinese designs, except he also wears camo-print pants and Aviator shades.
Oh, and by the end of the film, we discover that he's not the real Mandarin, he's just an actor named Trevor Slattery who was hired by the real villain, Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce).
This moment of the film really divided audiences. I have friends who absolutely hated it, because they were really enjoying the Mandarin as a villain. But some audiences really enjoyed the reversal, and Ben Kingsley delivers a very fun performance as Trevor the drugged-out hapless actor.
But the creators behind the film knew that they didn't want to fully close the door on the Mandarin as a villain, so they shot a short film called Hail to the King. It was the last of the Marvel One-Shots, and it was also the best one, because it's the only one that actually highlights a character we enjoy watching (Ben Kingley's Trevor Slattery), and also deepens the lore. (The only other one that comes close is the first one, The Consultant, which closes a loop that only mattered to those few people who remembered The Incredible Hulk.
The short film explicitly states that "the Mandarin" is a real warlord, a title passed down through history, and someone who was not pleased that his title was co-opted by a wealthy white man for his own ends.
And then... nothing. No other reference to the Mandarin. Iron Man didn't get any more solo films, and since all of the Avengers-level threats had a personal connection to Tony Stark (he created Ultron, was targeted by Zemo, and had dreaded what Thanos represented for six years), he didn't need an arch-enemy like the Mandarin.
But Marvel continued to expand, and we suspected the Mandarin might be introduced in one of the other projects, like Daredevil or Iron Fist. Thankfully neither happened, because Daredevil was able to focus on other iconic villains, and Iron Fist was... just dreadful.
And finally, in 2019, six years after Iron Man 3, Marvel announced a film titled Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. The film would center on a Chinese superhero, with almost the entire creative team (minus a few standard Marvel producers) being of Asian ancestry. And not only would the Mandarin appear, but he would fill the role that Fu Manchu played in the comics (while Marvel briefly held the rights to that character) as Shang-Chi's father, giving him a personal connection to a superhero.
Because, honestly... why is the Mandarin the default Iron Man nemesis? You could make an argument that he represents the rivalry of science vs. mysticism. You could make an even more compelling argument that he represents Cold War fears of Communist countries, just like so many other Iron Man villains of the era.
But honestly, he's the default nemesis because most of Iron Man's villains suck. But the filmmakers solved that by keeping Iron Man in the Avengers/ensemble movies and making him the center of the MCU. Even both of Spider-Man's recent enemies actually just hate Tony Stark and everything he represents, which is what pushes them into conflict with Spider-Man.
So, what can we learn from Iron Man 3? There are a lot of great elements to the film, but the awkward handling of the Mandarin hangs around the movie's neck and drags it somewhere that it clearly doesn't feel comfortable going. So it doesn't commit to any truly consistent take on the character, instead merely introducing a hodge-podge version of him and then pulling him away to make room for a blonde guy with a dragon tattoo who can breathe fire.
Also, the filmmakers wanted to make Maya Hansen the villain, but they were apparently told that toys of female villains don't sell well, so they changed their mind.
Iron Man 3 starts Phase 2 of the MCU, and represents the beginning of a very weird era of Marvel films. In Iron Man 3, Thor: The Dark World, and Captain America: The Winter Soldier, the same big question looms: Where are the rest of the Avengers? How do we do sequels that pay off the previous solo film and the first Avengers film, and how do we set up the next solo film and the next Avengers film?
While I do enjoy the Phase 2 films, they show their growing pains in obvious ways. By the time we reach Phase 3, the Marvel formula had been refined, but few things represent the awkward transition quite as well as Iron Man 3, a movie that:
Ends with Tony blowing up his suits before rebuilding them offscreen before Age of Ultron;
Features Rhodey as Iron Patriot before he returns as War Machine in Age of Ultron;
Wanted to have a female villain, but backed down when told they wouldn't sell as many toys;
Introduces Ben Kingsley as the Mandarin only to reveal he was never the Mandarin, and then have Killian shout "I am the Mandarin" in the climax... only for a short film to quickly swoop in and establish that there really is a Mandarin, but then we wouldn't see him for eight years. (And that's assuming Shang-Chi still comes out in 2021, which is hardly a sure thing in the era of COVID.)
As I was preparing for this blog, I found a recent interview with Drew Pearce, the co-writer of Iron Man 3 and director of Hail to the King. He acknowledged that, while they did their best to adapt the Mandarin without too much of the problematic racial language, he was more excited to see what would be done with the character in Shang-Chi. Here's a quote:
“I think it’s more exciting to me when you cast one of the most exciting names I’ve ever seen in a Marvel movie as the Mandarin,” he says. “When it’s a movie that has such an authentically Asian context, and an Asian lead and Asian filmmakers behind it, frankly, I couldn’t be more excited to see where the Mandarin goes next.”
And I agree with Drew Pearce. While I enjoy Ben Kingsley's performance in Iron Man 3, it's also clear that the creators had some discomfort around the character that they never quite resolved.
If you write using material you didn't originate/invent - an installment in an existing series/world, fan-fiction for a popular franchise, or even a D&D campaign set in a published campaign - you may run into a character like the Mandarin, who is saddled with baggage that is hard to ignore and hard to reconcile. And when that happens, you have a choice to make.
Do you ignore the problems and try to do your best with the character without addressing it?
Do you make changes to try to blunt the issues, like Pearce and Shane Black did for Iron Man 3?
Or do you step aside, and let artists of that community and culture take their own approach to the material? Ultimately, that was the decision Marvel eventually decided to take with this character, and while we haven't seen Shang-Chi yet, I think history will show that it was the right choice.
Ben Kingsley is still really good in Iron Man 3, though.