Reader Beware: If you do not want to be spoiled on the big Iron Man 3 twist, you should not read this column. It will be focusing on a big twist that affects the movie, and I would hate to spoil anyone. Read further at your own risk.
Last month, all the staff members of Renegade Cinema were asked to write up our Top 5 most anticipated summer 2013 films. Iron Man 3 (barely) made my list, rounding out the list at the fifth and final slot, beating out The Wolverine, and several other big movies. You can read my list here to find out some other reasons why.
It’s been almost two weeks since Iron Man 3 arrived in theaters, and it’s already broken all kinds of box office records and received some positive reviews from many critics. However, the film also arrived with an unexpected controversy regarding the film’s big twist.
Since last week’s installment of Most Heroic focused on the archetype of the archenemy, I thought that it only made sense to talk about this issue in greater detail here on the column.
To the surprise of everyone and the chagrin of many, the man we all thought was Mandarin was revealed to be a drug-addicted stage actor named Trevor Slattery. Slatterly was merely playing the part of the charismatic cult leader to throw people off the scent of the film’s real villain, Guy Pearce’s Aldrich Killian. Some fans didn’t mind this colossal change, but others were greatly angered by it. In fact, our staff members here at Renegade disagree on the film. Shawn wrote a very positive review for the film and he approved of the Iron Man 3 twist, but Derick was really disappointed by the change, even though he liked the movie overall, the twist put a bad taste in his mouth. Honestly, I agree more with Derick in this case, and I’ll explain why.
Why I Wanted to See Iron Man 3
Like I said in my original Top 5 post, one of the biggest reasons I was excited to see Iron Man 3 was The Mandarin and the fact that the great Ben Kingsley was playing him. Kingsley is a transcendent actor, but he doesn’t always get to show us just how great he is. A role like the Mandarin from the comics is a worthy role for him. If he could give Mandarin anywhere near the intensity and danger that he gave Don Logan in Sexy Beast, he could have been on par with Heath Ledger’s Joker.
(For the record, I do think Kingsley did a good job in Iron Man 3. I just wish he could have been Mandarin, and not Trevor Slattery.)
I was also psyched just to see Mandarin for the sake of finally seeing him in the films. Marvel chose to exclude him from the first two films in favor of using Obadiah Stane, Whiplash, and Justin Hammer. At the time, that was an unprecedented move for the fledgling movie studio. Save for Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, no one had ever opened a superhero movie franchise without the archenemy appearing in the first film. Superman had Lex Luthor. X-Men used Magneto. Spider-Man had Green Goblin. Hell, even Daredevil featured both Kingpin AND Bullseye! There’s never a guarantee that you’ll get to make a second movie, and conventional movie-making logic suggests that you put your best foot forward. (This is usually another reason why the first movie is the best. Archenemies bring out the best stories by bringing out the best in the heroes.)
Someone explained Marvel’s choice to use Iron Monger over Mandarin very eloquently by comparing it to the villains in Star Wars. “Emperor Palpatine is the ultimate evil, but Darth Vader is the one you want to see fight. Until you see that the Emperor can shoot lightning out of his fingers.” Whoever thought up that quote was very clever. It was a great way to placate the fans, and also build anticipation for the conflict we’d actually get when Mandarin himself waged war on Tony Stark.
Now let’s take the opportunity to talk about the Mandarin as a character.
Who is Mandarin Anyway?
He claims to be the last descendant of Genghis Khan, but in reality, he is the son of an opium den prostitute. He is a bitter megalomaniac who seeks to conquer the world, and defeat his arch-rival Iron Man. In his first few appearances, he actually bested Tony several times, thanks to his signature rings. He is a bitter man who was raised with his mother’s deep cynicism. Like Tony he is also a scientific genius, but he seeks to conquer the world and rule it. He shares none of Tony’s philanthropy and cares nothing for helping his fellow man.
Each one of the Mandarin’s rings has a different ability. Thanks to the rings, the Mandarin can disintegrate objects, summon whirlwinds, blast his foes with electricity, ice or fire, control people’s minds and several other powers. These rings make him a very versatile opponent in combat, and he is also a master at martial arts.
Can you imagine how a fight between the Mandarin and Tony would go down? I spent quite a bit of time fantasizing about the fight we could have seen.
Unlike in the past two movies, Tony wouldn’t be going up against another man in an metal suit. He’d just see a normal man. Then Mandarin hits him with a blast of electricity from his hand. Immediately afterward, he could send out a disintegration beam and Tony’s armor would start breaking down, molecule by molecule. After a few seconds, Tony would have to realize that even though he’s wearing one of the most advanced weapon systems on the planet, he’s overmatched. His armor might be able to counter some of the attacks, but not all of them at once. And for the first time,Tony is fighting someone who can actually match or even surpass his own intellect.
That’s what I was expecting to see when these two locked up on screen. In their first encounter, Mandarin would win, maybe even seriously injuring his foe. After their fight, Mandarin could leave Tony to die and continue with his own plan to cripple the United States. Tony, backed into this corner, would be forced to upgrade not just his armor, but also himself. He would inject himself with Extremis (the real Extremis mind you, not the stuff we saw in the movie) and then go on to face the Mandarin and his Extremis-powered force.
The Problems with Using Mandarin
Even though my initial reaction to the twist was irritated disappointment, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t understand why the filmmakers could have been reluctant to use the classic Mandarin Character. In the wrong hands, he could be a difficult pill for the modern audience to swallow. That being said, I don’t think that any of these concerns were insurmountable.
I honestly don’t think that I’m the right person to address this particular topic, but the risk was certainly there.
Nobody in their right mind wants to be accused of racism or insensitivity, least of all the helmers of a major movie that is essential to a franchise like The Avengers. It’s not very PC to call your villain a name like The Mandarin, even if he’s been around for decades in the comics. If they didn’t handle the character correctly, they could very well have offended a lot of people. The filmmakers clearly recognized this potential. I think that’s why they cast someone like Kingsley. They avoided making the character look like a stereotype by making the ethnicity indeterminate.
Similarity to Other Villains
His Asian/Arabic ancestry, criminal organization, and goals of planetary domination make the Mandarin very similar to Batman’s nemesis, Ra’s Al Ghul, even though the Mandarin has predates Ra’s by seven years in the comics. It’s not hard to see how alike the two are. They’re both men who hate what mankind has become and try to destroy the societies that have poisoned the earth. They may be ruthless, but they both have some strict codes of honor.
And as much as I like my idea of Mandarin defeating Iron Man soundly in single combat, I’m sure that some dumb, snarky person will make the claim, “They’re just copying off of Bane!” After all, The Dark Knight Rises was only one year ago, it’s still fresh in their minds. That person would be wrong, but I’m still sure it would be said. Villains defeating heroes isn’t a new technique. The heroes can’t win every time. It’s just the law of averages.
But should that stop the filmmakers from using their best villain in what appears to be the final Iron Man movie? Should that mean that we won’t get to see the real Mandarin in all his sinister glory? I personally don’t think so.
While I was researching for this column, I found an account from the filmmakers that claims that they considered Kingsley’s mask character as the “idealized incarnation” of the Mandarin, and Guy Pearce’s Aldrich Killian represented the real Mandarin. That’s a very interesting perspective and the Iron Man 3 twist overall is a ballsy move, and I reject it.
Why I Still Think It Was a Bad Idea
If there’s one thing that I hate in storytelling, it’s wasted potential. By establishing that the Mandarin was just a ruse by Aldrich Killian – who was a generic villain if I’ve ever seen one, even though Guy Pearce did his best – they effectively configured it so that that he can NEVER be usable in any of Marvel’s future works. It doesn’t sound like RDJ wants to come back for any more solo Iron Man movies. Unless Joss decides to have The Avengers fight The Masters of Evil with a character to represent the classic Mandarin, we won’t see the real deal hit the screen. They had the chance to put Tony up against a really personal and unique threat, and they missed it.
Maybe we’ll get to see Mandarin in the next generation of Marvel Movies, but I don’t see it happening anytime soon.
Please don’t misunderstand me. Everyone in the movie did a good job. I respect that is was their choice, I just don’t think that it was ultimately the right one. I would never have downgraded from the Mandarin to a villain that no one will remember in a few years.
I’m Jesse Blume, and this is Most Heroic.
Brilliant article, Jesse. As I mentioned to D-Rock, I was glad that I discovered the twist before seeing the film, because I would have been furious if it played out before my unsuspecting eyes. My enjoyment of the film wasn’t as hampered as it could have been, but I still felt great disappointment when I saw Kingsley as The Mandarin, pre-twist. He was a really scary guy, and the specter of his character loomed over the first act so well that he didn’t need to be on screen to be intimidating. Killian was ok, but he was your typical sniveling cardboard cutout villain; when you have a villain like The Mandarin, who sees himself as a liberator, and Killian, who just wants to rule the world, it’s easier to see that The Mandarin was a missed opportunity. Fortunately, the writing was entertaining enough to redeem itself while continuing to remind people that the bad guy who grabbed their attention in the first 40 minutes was now drinking beer and falling asleep in his sweat shorts.
I thought it was such a waste.
Iron Man – bad guy is a smart dude who’s not as smart as Tony and wants what he has
Iron Man 2 – bad guy is a smart dude who’s not as smart as Tony and wants what he has
Iron Man 3 – bad guy is an awesome, mystical sourcerer who can take on Tony with something he’s never seen or delt with before. Oh, nevermind. Bad guy is a smart dude who’s not as smart and wants what he has.
It was so obnoxious, and such a freaking cop-out. We were finally going to see Tony pushed to the limits. To deal with something that his technology wouldn’t have an answer for. But nope. We get the same damn villain as the last 2 films.
It reminds me of Batman Begins. We spend the entire film building up this bad guy, then all of a sudden Qui-Gonn Jinn parachutes into the film out of no where and we’re all of a sudden expected to care about this guy.
I couldn’t agree with you more, Devan.
I agree, Caliber. You perfectly summed up the difference in motivation and personality that we would have seen in the real Mandarin. That’s what disappointed me most about the film.
However, I do think that this kind of twist worked much better in “Batman Begins.” As a matter of fact, they could have used some of the elements from “Begins” to make “IM3” better. In that film, we’d already seen the character of “Ducard” build the mentor/student relationship with Bruce in the first act of the film. The later revelation of his true identity made their conflict that much more personal at the end. They also made Ra’s more interesting because you could see that he didn’t truly want to be Bruce’s downfall. It was just something that needed to be done.
I think the key was really the generic nature of the genuine antagonist. He was a forgettable enemy. Generic Baddie #367 is never going to stand out when put alongside a colourful super villain that people know, even if a good actor plays the role. I mean does anyone remember Christopher Walkens character from Batman Returns? Unlikely. The fact the Mandarin ended up fake and the generic guy ended up the main antagonist doesn’t make me care any more about him, he’s still a footnote, a minor glitch, a vague noise in the distance and lots of other dismissive expressions.