In March, Iron Man 3 writer-director Shane Black raised alarm among Marvel Comics fans when he said that his interpretation of the Mandarin wouldn't have magic rings, and would instead be closer in spirit to the Joker in The Dark Knight Rises and Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now.
With Iron Man 3 expected to cross the $1 billion mark by the weekend, most fans have taken to the silver screen to see for themselves how Tony Stark's greatest foe was represented in live-action. The results were perhaps, not what Marvel fans were expecting.
Warning: The following contains MAJOR SPOILERS for Iron Man 3!
But who was expecting that his Mandarin wouldn't be a villain at all? Reworking Ben Kingsley's Mandarin to be a goofy, toothless figurehead subservient to Guy Pearce's scientist has polarized audiences, with some arguing that the choice is a brave, modern move, while others decry it as sacrilege, not only to the comics but to the previous two movies. We asked Black to defend his version of the Mandarin to fans who found his weakness shocking. Here's Black's argument for Iron Man 3's bold re-imagining, from what we told us during the Iron Man 3 press day:
"I would say that we struggled to find a way to present a mythic terrorist that had something about him that registered after the movie's over as having been a unique take, or a clever idea, or a way to say something of use. And what was of use about the Mandarin's portrayal in this movie, to me, is that it offers up a way that you can sort of show how people are complicit in being frightened. They buy into things in the way that the audience for this movie buys into it. And hopefully, by the end you're like, 'Yeah, we were really frightened of the Mandarin, but in the end he really wasn't that bad after all.' In fact, the whole thing was just a product of this anonymous, behind-the-scenes guy. I think that's a message that's more interesting for the modern world because I think there's a lot of behind-the-scenes, a lot of fear, that's generated toward very available and obvious targets, which could perhaps be directed more intelligently at what's behind them."
Maybe we should have seen the change coming. After all, back when Black was denying that The Mandarin was even in the movie he was saying the character was a racist relic. But could Tony Stark’s archenemy have been rehabilitated for the modern age? Sure, there are racially suspect elements to the traditional Mandarin, but surely Black and co-writer Drew Pearce could have trimmed those out.
Perhaps Marvel fanboys are most upset at the loss of The Mandarin’s ten rings of power. These extraterrestrial weapons defined The Mandarin for decades, and in the Iron Man movies they've been transformed into only the name of the villain's terrorist network. Perhaps Black could have tried to bring those rings into the film. The Iron Man trilogy has tried to rely on science-based foes, but Pearce's Aldrich Killian could have come up with some sort of nanotechnological spin on the rings.
While it might have been nice to keep the rings, Black's spin on The Mandarin was unexpected and fun. It certainly gave Sir Ben Kingsley the opportunity to open up and have a blast in the role (read about Kingsley's thoughts on The Mandarin here). It also managed to actually surprise fans, who thought they knew every detail of the story going in. It's nice, in this age of endless reboots and sequels and adaptations from well-known source material, to be surprised in the theater once in a while.
What do you think? Is Iron Man 3's media-managed Mandarin an interesting, modern twist? Or were you dismayed that he wasn't a more formidable adversary? Let us know in the comments below.
Iron Man 3 is currently in theaters worldwide.
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