Though controversial, Iron Man 3’s Mandarin twist marked a shift in how Marvel Studios approached its super-villains - for the better. Over the course of its three phases the Marvel Cinematic Universe has become a beloved box-office juggernaut, causing various other studios to attempt to replicate their huge success.
However, Hollywood’s premier shared universe has encountered some problems as it has expanded. As audiences have flocked to see each new Marvel release in greater numbers, the studio’s superhero films have come under increasing scrutiny and, until recently, it was generally acknowledged that the Marvel Cinematic Universe's weakest point was its villains.
Despite being played by acclaimed actors like Christopher Eccleston and Tim Roth, Marvel villains were generally less developed and less memorable than their respective protagonists. Yet Marvel’s latter films have beefed up their villains, with Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) and the Vulture (Michael Keaton) standing as examples of rounded rivals with understandable motivations. Whether you love it or hate it, Iron Man 3's big twist was a turning point, and the Mandarin approach has made Marvel's villains more interesting and memorable.
- This Page: Iron Man 3's Controversial Mandarin Twist
- Page 2: How Marvel Villains Have Changed Since Iron Man 3
Why The Mandarin Twist Was So Controversial
Prior to his cinematic debut, Iron Man was not the most famous of Marvel's superheroes, and neither was his de-facto nemesis, the Mandarin. In his comic book appearances, this unnamed Chinese warlord possesses ten powerful, mystical rings, which he uses to vanquish his enemies. The Mandarin is also an expert martial artist, scientist and strategist, and has clashed with Tony Stark many times in his quest for power.
Despite the Mandarin’s relatively low status in Marvel’s villainous hall of fame, anticipation begun to build for his induction into the MCU. Marvel had proved that they could compellingly adapt their source material’s more outlandish concepts and characters, so hopes were already high for a similarly straightforward, modern take on the Mandarin. Indeed, his ominous presence had been teased since Tony’s fateful cave sojourn in Iron Man, which was orchestrated by the terrorist group known as the Ten Rings. Thus, fans were excited to see Stark’s nemesis finally realized onscreen. As Iron Man 3’s opening weekend neared, it seemed as if everyone’s expectations had been met.
With veteran actor Sir Ben Kingsley in a comic book accurate costume, the threat of the Mandarin loomed over the film’s promotional material. Indeed, each trailer teased an epic, desperate test for Tony Stark, whose home and personal life literally crumbled under the Mandarin’s onslaught. Yet upon its release, this turned out to be a huge misdirection. In a large deviation from the comics, the real villain was actually scientist Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce), and it transpired that Kingsley was really playing Trevor Slattery - a sleazy, drunken and drug-addled actor. Slattery had been paid to embody the fake persona of the Mandarin to manipulate American politicians and take credit for Killian’s wrongdoings.
This bait and switch left many fans disappointed, since they had been expecting a dynamic and faithful take on the character, not a humorous and deconstructive iteration. Similarly, Pearce’s Killian wasn’t given much screen time to step in after Slattery’s façade had been lifted. As such, many have complained that the promised, grandiose end to the Iron Man trilogy had fallen rather flat. Certainly, the furor over Iron Man 3’s twist lingers – on the internet and in conversation – years after its cinematic run. But rather than damaging Marvel’s winning streak, it has enhanced it.
The Mandarin Twist Worked Despite The Backlash
Whilst Kingsley and Pearce’s interpretation of the Mandarin deviates from the traditional Mandarin rather substantially, the reasoning for this change is sound. As director Shane Black explained, the Mandarin was altered so that the filmmakers could simultaneously sidestep and address the character’s troubling racial aspects.
In the comics, the Mandarin has often appeared as a Fu Manchu caricature, which obviously reflects the prejudices of the time he was created in. In Iron Man 3, only a small number of the Mandarin’s Asian trappings remain, but these are a deliberate, in-universe choice. Indeed, in the series’ post 9-11 setting Killian dresses Slattery in this way to capitalize on America’s tense preoccupation with the Middle East. In doing so, Iron Man 3 recontextualizes the Mandarin to not only suit modern audiences, but to reaffirm the trilogy’s critical look at the USA’s unethical military industrial complex.
Does the Mandarin twist succeed, or does it squander the film’s potential? Fans continue to argue both cases based on the above information; and that is precisely the point. As the superhero genre (and its multitudes of fans) multiply in number, Iron Man 3 is repeatedly dissected and discussed. And, during these revisits, the Mandarin twist is an unavoidable part of those conversations, because it is a deciding facet of the film’s plot and its appeal. Shocking plot developments in movies and TV shows have dominated social media and become “water-cooler moments” for colleagues, friends and families to discuss far more than would have done in years gone by. By implanting the Mandarin into a pivotal mid-movie twist, Marvel Studios ensured that the Mandarin would never be forgotten.
- The Avengers 4 / Avengers: Endgame (2019) release date: Apr 26, 2019
- Spider-Man: Far From Home (2019) release date: Jul 02, 2019