It’s a little late, but it’s time to get this off my chest: the handling of the Mandarin in Iron Man 3.
(FAIR WARNING: I'm writing this piece assuming that you've seen the movie, or at least don't care enough about it to bother about major spoilers).
Some people think the twist a brilliant piece of satire. Others think it unutterably stupid.
Me? I think it was the single worst decision in any superhero film since someone decided Arnold Schwarzenegger would be the ideal Mr. Freeze (and no, I am not forgetting the death of Cyclops or evil Tobey Maguire thrusting his pelvis at the camera).
Imagine if, midway through The Dark Knight, Batman had tracked down the Joker only to learn that he was an innocent clown hired by for a birthday gig that got out of hand and that Eric Roberts’ Mafioso character was the real villain. Or if the original Star Wars had killed off Darth Vader and kept Grand Moff Tarkin as the main bad guy. I call this the “Davy Jones Syndrome:” wherein a work introduces an awe-inspiring or iconic villain, only to sideline him in favor of a more generic bad guy who gores whatever ox the writer happens to be obsessed with (usually capitalism or patriotism or some other institution liberals don’t like). It’s named, of course, after the disastrous Pirates of the Caribbean sequels, which – in addition to their many other sins – inexplicably decided that an utterly generic evil capitalist would make a better chief bad-guy than a super-powered demonic cross between Captain Nemo and Cthulhu as played by one of the best character actors in modern Hollywood.
Iron Man 3 makes almost the exact same mistake: a diabolically evil villain played by a master bad-guy is unceremoniously tossed aside to make room for a nondescript corrupt corporate executive. The only saving grace of this debacle is that Guy Pearce is an excellent actor in his own right and can make a perfectly serviceable villain, unlike…whatever the hell his name was in Pirates. The trouble, though, is that Pearce is best at playing rather ordinary or at least human bad-guys (see his deliciously heartless turn in The Count of Monte Cristo). As a comic-book super-villain, ‘Guy Pearce as evil businessman’ is no match for ‘Ben Kingsley as all-knowing terrorist mastermind.’
This is so stupid, so anticlimactic, and so indescribably lame that I find it single-handedly derails the film (in my review, written shortly after I had seen it, I thought that it didn’t quite, but upon reflection I realized that the film’s contrary virtues are all ones that only really come on the first viewing, and the black hole of badness created by the Mandarin and the many other flaws grows ever larger the more you think about it).
I’ll try to explain why and how this was such a terrible, terrible idea (because I think it's instructive). To do that, I’ll have to recount the basic set up of the first half or so of the film and read it as though they were not going to pull their disastrous twist.
The Mandarin (played with chilling coldness by the great Ben Kingsley) is established as a master terrorist; Osama Bin Laden by way of Fu Manchu. He has a deep, abiding hatred for America and all it represents, a hatred he expresses through precise and symbolic bombings across the globe, accompanied by stylistic propaganda videos explaining his reasoning. He often announces his targets ahead of time, but the authorities prove helpless to do anything to stop him. At one point he openly challenges the President of the United States by threatening to execute a hostage if the President doesn’t call him in time. Then when the President does, he kills the man anyway. He’s made his point: he is in charge.
The Mandarin gives off an air of chilling omnipotence; he is so cunning and subtle that he can make a phone number appear in the President’s personal cell-phone while effortlessly eluding all attempts to bring him to justice. Combined with his theatrical manners and trappings, he seems almost more than a man.
Then, one day, Tony Stark’s friend is injured in one of the Mandarin’s attacks. Tony, enraged, offers a public challenge to the terrorist. The Mandarin accepts by bombing Stark’s house into rubble.
The impression is that, for once, Tony has really bitten off more than he can chew. The Mandarin is the kind of bad-guy, like Bane or the Joker in the Dark Knight films, who cuts right to the point with a speed and ferocity that the hero is unprepared for; an intricately planned blitzkrieg that overwhelms and crushes him right where he thought he was most powerful.
In the midst of this is Guy Pearce as a character named Aldrich Killian; a business rival with a serious grudge against Tony Stark for snubbing him years earlier. Killian possesses an unstable performance-enhancing technology called ‘Extremis’ which is tied up in the Mandarin’s schemes, and appears to be working with – or for – the terrorist, who headquarters in Killian’s Florida mansion.
Now, what happens in the film is that it turns out Killian is the one in charge and the Mandarin is actually a funny little British actor who has no idea of the crimes he’s involved in. Killian is in league with the Vice President and has a deal in which he’ll kill the President in exchange for the Vice President supporting his war profiteering (in a desperate attempt to save face, the writers have Killian inexplicably screaming “I was the real Mandarin!” right before he dies).
First of all, lame, lame, lame, Lame, LAME! Political corruption, a personal vendetta, and war profiteering? Boring! Seen it a thousand times. Hell, the last two Iron Man movies did all that, and did it better! Killian is basically just a mix of Iron Monger (the war profiteer), Vanko (the personal grudge against Stark), and Justin Hammer (the corrupt business rival), all of whom were a heck of a lot more interesting and fun.
Even if we hadn’t seen it all before, a corrupt corporate executive with an old grudge is a petty, rather pathetic figure. There’s no power or grandeur to him. He’s a perfectly serviceable villain, but he’s a mid-level bad-guy, not the ultimate threat of the climactic film of a trilogy. On one side we have the Master Terrorist who hates the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave and all it stands for, and on the other we have a shallow, soulless man who can’t forget a personal slight. All the laws of drama scream in protest when you take the latter over the former.
What should have happened is that Killian, out of his hatred of Stark, would join forces with the Mandarin, thinking, in his arrogance, that he could control the terrorist. This would lead to the crucial moment where he realizes that he has been toying with a force far more powerful and dangerous than he bargained for and would presumably pay the price. The dynamic would be rather like Dagget and Bane in The Dark Knight Rises: the greedy businessman who, looking for an edge over his rival, turns to someone who really believes in something greater than mere Mammon and finds, to his horror, that the ideologue is something far beyond the control of a petty creature like himself. Killian, like Dagget, is a small man; a man of spite and greed and envy, whose overwhelming arrogance is the only thing that prevents him from realizing how dangerous someone like Bane or the Mandarin really is (or ought to be).
Which brings me to one of the crucial points: the Mandarin, as established in the first half of the film, hits Tony at a point he’s never been hit before. He strikes right at the roots of who he is and what he does. He forces Stark to face the question “what, exactly, are you fighting for?” Stark has always supported and ‘fought for’ America: both when he made weapons for the military and when he took the fight directly to the Afghan terrorists. But really, Tony has always had his own interests at the forefront. Even after he became a hero, it’s always about either cleaning up his own mess or protecting his own friends and loved ones.
The Mandarin forces him to question all that. He forces Tony to look for the ideal beyond any personal interest; it’s not about him, his past, or even his friends, it’s about the bigger issues of Freedom, Justice, and so on that Tony is supposedly fighting for. Do those matter to him at all? If so, is he really certain he’s on the right side? When push comes to shove, can Tony fight for something higher and nobler than himself?
See, the Mandarin, had they but allowed him, would have forced Tony to do some serious self-examination and answer some hard and interesting questions. He wouldn’t have just been a physical or intellectual challenge, but a spiritual one.
But perhaps I’m asking too much. Modern Hollywood seems almost incapable of imagining a man fighting for a higher cause like Justice or Honor; even Captain America wasn’t allowed to have any more profound a motivation than “I don’t like bullies.” Hollywood morality is, as a rule, entirely self-centered: personal exploration, personal empowerment, supporting one’s friends and families (if we’re lucky), and so on. The idea of fighting for a flag or an idea, for the “ashes of your fathers and the temples of your gods,” seems entirely alien to them. If so, then I can only say that if they can’t comprehend the ideas that make stories worth telling, they should stop telling them.
Still, even if they were never going to make the most of the Mandarin, what they actually decided to do simply hideous. On the most basic dramatic level, setting up an omnipotent, deadly mastermind able to run circles around the most powerful nation on Earth only to throw aside the curtain and show him to be nothing but smoke and mirrors is a stunning misstep, on the level of having the characters wake up and realize that it was all a dream. Having it done as a cheap joke (complete with toilet humor) only adds to the insult.
There is a time to be subversive and a time to be conventional. In both cases, that time ceases the moment it begins to hurt the story. In this case, it doesn’t just hurt the story; it maims and kills it. “We know you came for an elemental confrontation between Iron Man and his greatest foe, but that’d be too obvious, so we thought you’d enjoy more of the exact same kind of stuff you got in the first two movies, only stupider.” Or, alternatively “yes, I did just spend an hour setting up an utterly terrifying villain only to turn him into a cheap gag at the last minute. Ain’t I a stinker?” For goodness sakes, that’s the kind of joke you get on a Simpsons episode; it doesn’t work in an actual movie!
I’ve heard some people say they support the twist on the grounds that the Mandarin is a ‘racist’ character. Personally, I don’t know what racist stereotype is forwarded by a man who can outsmart the whole United States Military and go toe-to-toe with Iron Man. I’m not sure what negative statement this makes about Orientals or Anglo-Indians. Moreover, if we’re going to play the ‘racism game,’ isn’t the twist a lot more racist than the alternative would have been? Isn’t the implication (if you insist on drawing one) “oh, of course an Oriental couldn’t be the real bad guy: they’re just a funny little people. For a real mastermind, you need a white man”?
Besides that, what about the Mandarin is at all racist? A ‘mandarin’ is just an aristocratic class of civil servants from Imperial China who served as advisors, barristers, treasurers, and that sort of thing. An equivalent Western bad guy would call himself something like “the Bureaucrat” or, less amusingly, “the Judge.” This, of course, makes perfect sense for the Mandarin as presented in the first half of the film; a master strategist who appoints himself to stand in ‘judgment’ over the United States, and does so from the heritage of his own (ostensible) culture.
The only other grounds for calling the Mandarin a ‘racist’ character is the mere fact that he isn’t European, in which case good God! Do you realize how idiotic that position is? In the first place, it actually is racist to assume that people of one race do not suffer the same temptations and passions that any other race does and hence cannot be villains. In the second, pick up a newspaper sometime and see how much relation that notion has to the real world.
I can think of two, maybe three reasons for the decision the filmmakers made. The first is a simple desire to do something different, in which case they ought to be reminded that their job is to tell a story, not to win a Calvinball tournament. Originality is a tool, not an end, and the moment you start worrying about being original rather than simply telling a good story, you have lost your way and should put down your pen until you find it again.
The second reason is a fear of overseas markets. I suppose I can’t really fault them for that; filmmaking is a business, after all, but we’ve reached a very low point of culture indeed if we’re so desperate for the wealth of the tyrannies and dictatorships of the world that we dare not say a word against them. That’s even assuming that the Mandarin was explicitly connected to the Chinese government in any way, which would be an easy thing to avoid. Indeed, if they were really so worried about that, it seems to me the obvious solution would be to introduce a sympathetic Chinese character or a flattering depiction of the Chinese government to balance the portrayal (though the latter would be morally questionable in its own right).
The third and most troubling reason is that they really believe this is closer to how the world works: that the director or screenwriters subscribe to a kind of ‘9/11 Truther’ view of politics in which nations like America really fabricate terrorist threats to gun up the military-industrial complex that pumps wealth into the pockets of the right people. If so, then they’re despicably ignorant and callous people who need to learn to face the real world and their film is not only bad, but actively offensive (the fact that it came out mere weeks after the Boston Marathon Bombings only emphasizes this).
Unfortunately, I suspect the last is the true, or at least primary, motivation. Something I read quoted from an interview with the director indicates that he subscribes to this kind of insanity (I can’t find the interview at the moment).So, in summary, the treatment of the Mandarin in Iron Man 3 squanders great dramatic potential, is hideously anticlimactic and stupid in itself, and seems to stem from motives that range from silly to despicable. It’s a real winner. Storytellers, we’re going to file this under the ‘don’t’ category.
Vivat Christus Rex!