Wait, wait! This article is hell-of spoiler heavy. And I mean Hell Of. If you haven’t seen Iron Man 3 yet, now would be a good time to log off and come back when you have.
You sure? Last chance.
Alright, let’s talk.
I need to be blunt about something: Iron Man has one of the worst rogue’s galleries in all of superhero comics. By “worst,” I don’t mean that they’re silly or anything like that. Silly can be passable; it can titillate the mind and provide room for experimentation. I put his villains among the worst, though, because they’re considerably forgettable. Say what you will about the rejects The Flash has to deal with; at least there’s some comedic value to be found in clods like The Rainbow Raider or The Pied Piper.
Iron Man’s villains were mostly other guys in super-suits or the products of mad science. A rogue’s gallery so forgettable the studio had to put two of them together into one character for Iron Man 2. Can you imagine Marvel Studios trying to use some of Tony Stark’s other villains in future films? I’m not sure how well Dreadknight or Living Laser would work on-screen, and I’m pretty certain all attempts to make The Unicorn cool would probably end in all of cinema collapsing in on itself.
Yet, there were some diamonds in the rough. Most notably, there was The Mandarin. The Mandarin is a big fan favourite because he’s been touted time and again as Tony Stark’s opposite. While Tony Stark embraced science, The Mandarin worked with the magical. Stark owned a corporate empire; The Mandarin owned an actual empire. Tony had friends and lovers, but The Mandarin had henchmen and concubines. Finally, Iron Man was a physical manifestation of industry and the Arms Race during the Cold War, the face of progress and Western modernity, and as much of a major propaganda symbol as Captain America ever was. Conversely, The Mandarin represented Communist China, a shadowy mystic who favoured uniformity and a warped sense of tradition over American ideals. He even tried to karate chop Iron Man, for gods’ sake.
So when Marvel Studios announced that Iron Man 3 would feature The Mandarin, played by none other than the venerable Sir Ben Kingsley, the world erupted. Scepticism ran through the fandom; where was the big Yellow Peril villain that was known and loved? Why cast a half-Gujarati Brit when fans demanded the sinister Chinese superterrorist to lead the charge against Tony Stark? Well, because America’s no longer at war with China and demonizing the ultimate representative of a nation that the U.S. owes over a trillion dollars to would not be wise. I supposed that if they wanted to play up The Mandarin as an East Asian threat, the studio could probably claim this Mandarin was an angry Uyghur war chief or something.
Once the trailers dropped, though, the fans lost their minds. Hearing Sir Kingsley growl out his infamous “lessons” as Tony Stark’s house got wrecked sent chills up several million spines, and the sight of his Ten Rings was a joy to behold. People couldn’t wait. They wanted The Mandarin. They wanted the big showdown between him and Stark, the climactic battle between science and magic that would rock theatres around the world.
Here’s what we got instead:
See, The Mandarin from the trailers was a nice bit of trickery played up by the film’s real villain, super-scientist and Advanced Idea Mechanics founder Aldrich Killian. We learned that Killian hired a deadbeat English actor and turned him into The Mandarin as a front to draw the world away from his experiments with the Extremis super-virus which rebuilt people from the ground up and turned them into walking napalm. It’s next revealed that Killian took a hit of Extremis himself, and as his shirt burned away during the final battle we see a series of Chinese dragon tattoos covering his chest, and later he boasts to Tony Stark: “You wanted The Mandarin? You got him! I am The Mandarin!”
And I think it’s a work of goddamn genius.
There’s a part of me that’s just as disappointed as the rest of you that we didn’t have the super-despot from the comics. As jingoistic as the character was, there was something iconic about the guy. That said, I’m still incredibly pleased with this version of him. This isn’t the MCU fanboy in me defending the decisions of a soulless studio that wants my money and not my opinions. I liked this Mandarin because he got me thinking about the semiotics of villainy.
Let’s rewind a bit: I said before that The Mandarin was supposed to represent Communist China, that he’s not only a character but also a symbol for one of America’s enemies. Well, the same could be said for this Mandarin, both the front and the real deal.
Here’s something to dwell on: we miss Hitler. Granted, we don’t miss what he did, because nobody sane can say that with a straight face. What we miss is having some vile force of nature sweeping the land that people could unite against and fight back. The dictators and warlords running around today are far too centralized and, in many ways, kind of pathetic compared to Adolf. North Korea’s starving to death, China and Russia are (slowly) cleaning themselves up*, and most of the mass murderers in South/Central Asia and the African continent would just go away if people just put in the effort to build and maintain schools in the regions they tended to dominate. The fact alone that The Taliban, the big bad guys who destroyed the World Trade Centre, are not Machiavellian geniuses but a bunch of well-connected, angry farmers is absolutely bizarre to consider. This is a group that is more frightened of the polio vaccine and educated women than United Nations sanctions.
So, in comes The Mandarin: the ultimate enemy. Connected, charismatic, resourceful; heavily armed and highly dangerous, he’s at war with the U.S. and won’t stop until it’s remade in his image. And I’m talking about the both of them.
Look at the Fake Mandarin, and what do you see? A composite sketch of everyone who has ever hated America. Critics have already pointed out shades of Osama Bin Laden, North Korea’s Kim family, and e-anarchists who go around hacking banking information. Look closer, though, and you’ll see elements of Fidel Castro, Mao Zedong, and Timothy McVeigh. Similarly, the Killian Mandarin could be seen as a manifestation of America’s true enemy: itself. Killian and AIM had more in common with the pharmaceutical companies Michael Moore ragged on in Sicko than the bee keepers of doom. Killian is the conspiracy theorist’s wet dream; the CEO of a mega-corporation who manipulates the media and the government into helping him act out his sadistic machinations from the shadows.
Whichever one you look at, you see The Mandarin isn’t a man; he’s a love letter, an idea made manifest. He’s America’s need for a villain, a single man who represents their fear and anger, just as he was when he was dropping karate chops on Tony Stark back in the 1960s. So when Aldrich Killian raised himself up high and declared “I am the Mandarin,” I thought, “Yes, you are.” Because he is. And so is everyone else at Advanced Idea Mechanics. Because they made the most advanced idea of all: a super villain.
See you next time,