[WARNING: Spoilers for Iron Man 3 ahead.]
Despite being critically well received, in addition to one of the most financially successful comic book movies of all time, Iron Man 3 is not without its share of detractors. Many of these are long-time fans of the Iron Man comic mythos, who felt robbed by the switcheroo writer/director Shane Black pulled with Iron Man’s arch-nemesis, The Mandarin.
In the comics, The Mandarin is a scientific genius, a superhumanly strong martial artist, and the bearer of 10 rings that imbue him with different powers. Trailers for Iron Man 3 suggested that an adaptation of this character would be played by Ben Kingsley, while his actual role was that of a deadbeat actor who had been hired to throw suspicion off of the real villain. Following the fan disappointment, Marvel released a short film, All Hail the King, which hinted that a “real” Mandarin still existed somewhere in the MCU.
In a retrospective interview with IGN, Black discussed his feelings about his approach to Iron Man 3:
We may have done our job a bit too well in a way because we succeeded in actually having a surprise in the middle of a big summer movie where you normally know virtually everything about it before you go in. And when I say we did our job too well it meant some of the fans felt fooled. They felt I think that they’d been led down one path and then sold a bill of goods. It’s hard. Because I want to please the fans… But in this case I thought – and we all thought – that it was just a very interesting and very layered decision to take the Mandarin [in].
Black went on to say that the inspiration for their version of The Mandarin came from the Marvel Comics concept of A.I.M. and created a “straw man terrorist” in order to create fear within the world of Iron Man 3. The director additionally spoke about the Iron Man series diverging from the comics, for instance in the case of Iron Man 2 with the villain Whiplash. But, at the end of the day, “there is a hardcore niche of fandom that was genuinely disappointed … And for that I feel bad.” Still, Black admitted: “I still like the choice we made.”
In further discussing the director’s choices as they pertain to Iron Man 3, IGN then asked if Black would do things differently if he could do the movie again. He responded:
Of course not. The minute you start to govern your creative impulses based on anticipation of someone else’s response or their expectations, then you’re going to fail. You’re going to fail them, too. Because you’re not going to surprise anybody – you’re going to be busy second-guessing what other people want and indulging that people-pleasing side of yourself.
Beyond the creative twist, it’s clear that there were lots of things at play with the decision to alter Iron Man’s arch nemesis. In the past, Black referred to The Mandarin as a “racist stereotype of a Fu Manchu villain just waving his fist.” Iron Man 3 was famously changed for its Chinese audience, and it’s easy to see why Marvel might be reluctant to use a villain that could be offensive to one of the most rapidly growing markets of Western cinema.
While fans have argued for years now about the pros and cons of the change up, it’s refreshing to know that tentpole filmmakers are still making an effort to surprise moviegoers and challenge expectations.
Iron Man is appearing in theaters now in Captain America: Civil War. Doctor Strange opens November 4, 2016; Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 – May 5, 2017; Spider-Man: Homecoming – July 7, 2017; Thor: Ragnarok – November 3, 2017; Black Panther – February 16, 2018; Avengers: Infinity War Part 1 – May 4, 2018; Ant-Man and the Wasp – July 6, 2018; Captain Marvel – March 8, 2019; Avengers: Infinity War Part 2 – May 3, 2019; and as-yet untitled Marvel movies on July 12, 2019, and on May 1, July 10, and November 6 in 2020.