"The Mandarin" in "Iron Man 3," as portrayed by Sir Ben Kingsley.
Warning: There are “Iron Man 3” spoilers below about one of the film’s villains, the Mandarin.
“You’ll never see me coming.” That quote from Sir Ben Kingsley as the Mandarin sums up the film’s surprise twist. The hype for the film set up Kingsley’s Mandarin as the film’s archvillain, but moviegoers discovered that while Kingsley looked like the classic comic book depiction of the Mandarin, his character was actually a British actor merely pretending to be a terrorist.
Instead, we come to realize that Aldrich Killian, as portrayed by Guy Pearce, is the film’s true nemesis. He also reveals that he is the real Mandarin in the Marvel movie universe, complete with Chinese dragon tattoos, but bearing little resemblance to the character’s comic book portrayal.
While the film has been wildly popular, many comic fans have had trouble getting on board for this portrayal. The Mandarin has long held the reputation of being Iron Man’s greatest opponent, but in “Iron Man 3,” he’s presented as a drug-addled fool. However, it’s also a character, created in 1964, that reflects an old idea of “the Orient” that seems out of tune with both how race is looked at in the modern world, as well as not fitting in with the modern take on terrorism.
“The comic-book purists, the ones who know the comic books, they did not like the Mandarin twist mainly because that’s Iron Man’s biggest villain,” Jim Littler of ComicBookMovie.com explained to Yahoo Movies.
The idea came from co-screenwriter and director Shane Black, who told reporters that he felt that the character, Chinese in the comics, was racist. However, the film version is presented as a spooky big bad of indeterminate race, with wide-ranging motivations for his attacks — and the “real” Mandarin, if that’s what the Killian character really is, is an anglo opponent without the distasteful racial baggage of the comics.
One thing that may make the fake Mandarin pill easier to swallow for comics fans: He hasn’t been in that many great stories. As Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige put it in an interview with Entertainment Weekly, while Mandarin may be Iron Man’s greatest foe, it’s not the stories. “He’s just been around a lot.” Feige also explains that Mandarin was supposed to be the main villain in the 2008’s “Iron Man,” but their attempts at the time to reinvent the character just didn’t work.
The turn on the character also makes it hard to reconcile the film with 2008’s “Iron Man” — where the Ten Rings terrorist group was initially set up, kidnapping Tony Stark. In the comics, that name refers to 10 alien rings that give the Mandarin special powers, but the movie universe went for a more grounded take. But if “Iron Man 3” is to be believed, either the Ten Rings terrorist group is a ruse, or Killian is the one really behind the group. Unfortunately for attentive fans, no explanation was offered in the film.
Still, the idea of the Mandarin’s story being fictional isn’t without precedent — his origin has been retold several times, and in 2007’s Invicible Iron Man Annual, we even see the Mandarin telling his story to a film director he kidnaps to make a movie about his life, with the story he tells showing inconsistencies. His real story ends up being different than what he tells the director, and now it looks like that history of lies is being used with the Mandarin in “Iron Man 3.”
Another story with a similar game of pretend — Batman story “Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?” It includes a segment where, in an alternate history version of the Dark Knight’s story, the Joker — along with the rest of Batman’s villains — were all actors putting on a show for the entertainment of Bruce Wayne, with his butler Alfred being the one underneath that Joker makeup. There are only another six months to wait to see what surprises Marvel’s next film, “Thor: The Dark World,” has up its sleeves.
More on the comic book history of the Mandarin from Think About The Ink: