Why The Mandarin is the Best Villain in the Marvel Movieverse

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Obviously this post is going to contain spoilers regarding Iron Man 3 and the presence of the Mandarin, so don’t read on if you haven’t seen it yet. I’m going to be talking in-depth about the character’s portrayal and revealing major plot points. Got it? Good. 

As a big Marvel junkie, I can say that I was really worried about the Mandarin’s portrayal in Iron Man 3. The Mandarin–while being one of the biggest Iron Man-specific villains in the history of the series–is one of the most outdated. He’s a Chinese, radical, communist stereotype with magic rings that are actually not magic but made from alien technology. Plus, his name is the Mandarin. If you were going to phase out any character that was created before we decided racism was a bad thing, this was the one.

Therein lies what I thought was going to be a huge problem.

Luckily for me and everyone else, they found their way around it and created one of the best Marvel villains in the movieverse. I know how blasphemous that sounds to a lot of people (me included), especially since the response to this changes has been, uh, let’s say “less than positive.” Let me explain what I mean.

The Mandarin in the film is introduced as a terrorist of indefinite origin. He is shown in videos in places similar to the Middle East and talks about teaching America a “lesson.” These videos are shown on all the major news networks, but nobody knows how they got there. He is a combination of Al-Qaida, muslim, Chinese, and domestic cyber terrorist: an amalgamation of the things that we fear about terrorism and how it is perceived. In a way, he is the perfect terrorist. Nobody knows where he is filming from or where he comes from, his attacks are seemingly random, and he has a superpowered army at his disposal that manage to take down Iron Man and his entire home. Also, in a more subtle hint from the filmmakers, he is seemingly connected to the terrorists from the first film who were a part of an organization called the Ten Rings. If you rewatch Iron Man 1, you can see what looks like the Mandarin’s flag in the background of one of the bunkers.

The icing on the cake is that he’s played by Ben Kingsley: an actor who perfectly straddles the line between absurd and realistic in almost every role he plays. You can tell the guy has an outlandish, campy quality to him which lends itself to multi-faceted character very well. Despite initial reactions to his casting—that he wasn’t Chinese mostly—he is the only logical choice for the role. That’s because the Mandarin is so much more than Iron Man’s greatest arch rival.

You see, he’s not even Iron Man’s true nemesis in the film. The Mandrin doesn’t actually exist—or at the very least, not how you think he exists. He’s a British actor by the name of Trevor Slattery, who was hired by Guy Pearce’s character Aldrich Killian to be the face of a unique brand of domestic terrorism. He takes credit for accidents that AIM’s experiments with Extremis have caused so that Killian can continue to reap financial gain off of it.

Slattery, in my opinion, is a laugh riot. He’s pathetic, useless, takes really nasty poops, and has absolutely no indication of the effect he’s had on the world. His scenes are filled with low-brown humor such as the aforementioned toilet joke, along with exaggerated gags that depict him as a stereotype of washed-out actors. It’s perfect.

Kingsley transitions seamlessly between Slattery and the Mandarin (sometimes within the same scene) and the two personalities, while different, make sense together. Slattery’s reveal around the midway point is quite a shock, especially to fans of the original comics, but believe me when I say it makes sense. The Mandarin is the terrorist, but isn’t who you think he is. He’s anonymous but his destruction is still known. Best of all, he lives in Miami, along with the other members of AIM that are working on the Extremis project. Does this sound familiar?

This was not done intentionally by the filmmakers, but the events in the film brought up memories of the Boston bombings last month. I was scared shitless thinking about who had decided they were going to blow up parts of my city and think they could get away with it. For a few days we had no idea who this person could be, whether he was affiliated with Muslim-fundamentalist organizations, or had some other ulterior motive. Then they announced who had did it: a 19-year-old boy who had been in the city for years and his older brother. They weren’t foreign nationalists or radicals. They were domestic. They went to school in the city, lived there, had lives. Minus the older brother’s Islamic ties, they were domestic. They weren’t citizens, but they were the close enough.

They lived on our soil.

Iron Man 3 does the great thing by turning the idea of terrorism on its head; something they had been doing since the first film. Remember the Ten Rings? Note that they were hired by Obadiah Stane to kidnap Tony Stark because he was having penis issues. Stane, for the uninitiated, is an American who has worked with the Starks for decades—right under their noses. The same goes for the Mandarin, the real Mandarin. He’s not some anti-American foreigner but stems from American sensibilities. What do we do when our greatest villain is our neighbor and we never had any idea? We blame everyone else.

The fake Mandarin is just the face of terrorism. It’s a show, a presentation. He’s an amalgamation of all the different terrorist stereotypes. We’re not supposed to know where he’s from and he’s not supposed to be real because in many ways, terrorism today seems like entertainment: increasingly inaccurate and depicted a specific way by the media. Why else would people automatically assume that the Boston bombers were from the Middle East?

It’s amazing to me that Shane Black and the team behind the threequel decided to make a smarter superhero film. It’s so much more than a summer blockbuster. It’s the most accurate statement on present-day terrorism and fear post-9/11 that has been released in the past couple of years.

Anyone that is saying they “shat all over the Mandarin” is missing the point.

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