Dominic Mah is a writer, director, rock musical aficionado, and ex-professional gambler. He can be found on the internets as dommah, paranormalstatus.com, and @ThorHulkCritic. His personal heroes are Stan Lee, Bruce Lee, Annabel Lee and Barbara Lee.
The villain in Marvel’s latest Iron Man film is the Mandarin, a character who fought Iron Man about 600 times in the original comics, and has always been totally Chinese. That is, until Sir Ben Kingsley was cast to play him in Iron Man 3. Now that the movie’s arrived, we can throw out speculation and see what they did. Here’s a short primer to the original comic-book Mandarin to arm you with nerdy talking points for comparison:
The Mandarin is a ridiculously powerful half-Chinese man. He owns ten alien rings, each with a devastating alien power, which he wears on all ten fingers all the time, because you never know on any given day if you’re going to need the Mento-Intensifier Ring or the Vortex Beam Ring (or the Matter Rearranger Ring, which one imagines is super-useful for the lactose-intolerant). Like Will Smith’s son, he is a master of karate, and presumably some Chinese martial arts as well. He does grand, Genghis Khan-scale evil mastermind type things. He has his own giant robot named Ultimo. In one particularly great X-Men storyline, the Mandarin captured Psylocke (a telepathic British lady, up to that point the prissiest of the X-Persons), and literally turned her Japanese, so that she could become his sidekick ninja assassin. She’s still Japanese, too. Apparently people just liked her better that way.
The Mandarin is sort of a stereotype of Asians, but mostly he’s a stereotype of villains. That is, he calls people “carrion” and “fool” a lot, in perfect English. His mother was apparently a British noblewoman, although she was later maybe retconned to be an opium den prostitute (because that’s waaaaay less stereotypical?). In Tales of Suspense #86, Iron Man calls one of the Mandarin’s goon soldiers “Fu Manchu” (while punching him). He refers to the Mandarin as “Mandy,” because ultimately racial epithets are not as wounding as comparisons to Barry Manilow songs.
It’s only really weird that he is not being played by a Chinese guy because his actual name is The Mandarin. I mean, the word “mandarin” itself is Portuguese-derived. The word for Mandarin in Mandarin doesn’t sound anything like “Mandarin.” But still, the meanings of “the Mandarin” are all pretty specific Chinese-associated things, unless you’re talking about the orangey fruit. In this case it refers to a kind of government official that doesn’t much exist outside of pre-revolutionary China, so having a non-Chinese fellow say out loud, “I am the Mandarin” sets up a bit of cognitive dissonance/disconnect/WTF. Even the Arrow guy who is not really Green Arrow on the Arrow TV show that is clearly based on Green Arrow – they honor the source there, because that dude at least looks like Green Arrow has always looked. In the case of Iron Man 3, they occupied the Mandarin name and tossed out everything else, including all references to anything at all Chinese, although there is a clever reference to (SPOILER ALERT) fortune cookies.
So why again was there no Chinese villain in the movie about the Marvel superhero vs. Marvel’s decidedly Chinese supervillain? I don’t think it spoils anything to state that the filmic Mandarin has zero to do with the comic Mandarin, unless you count superficial Asian-ish costume motifs, which you probably oughtn’t. What’s interesting is that the story told by the film relies on the American iconography of villainy – that is, the exotic images and pageantry which we have come to associate with evil. And in that I felt a lost opportunity in the absence of the Chinese character, because gosh knows these days we could could use more investigation of the way China and America look at and judge each other. Adding to this is that there are influences in the Chinese government and economic powers-that-be who probably didn’t want Iron Man to trounce a Chinese villain in the movie that their money co-produces and which their vast audience will see. Especially if the odds are that villain will end up being an outdated caricature, with flowing robes and rings that come from alien dragons. So there’s a game within a game there.
Anyway, Iron Man 3 works because Mr. Kingsley is one of those actors whom you could watch reading the tax code and it’s somehow compelling. But if East Asian villains are your thing, it looks like the next Wolverine movie’s set in Japan and has him up against mobs of ninja samurai cyborg mutant something-or-others (I totally know all their names from the comics, but why inflict that nerdiness on you at this point? Silver Samurai.). Yes, not one esoteric Asian villain, but sword-wielding hordes. And I’m fairly confident that Wolverine slays every last one of ‘em. Unless one of them is played by Tom Cruise. But that seems unlikely, doesn’t it?