I went out and watched 'Iron Man 3' this weekend, and I did so with the movie's biggest plot twist already spoiled for me. Not that I minded--I have always been greatly of the opinion that if your twist is any good, you'd enjoy the story even if you knew it, and if it's not, then hiding it won't make it any better. (In that spirit, the killer in 'Saw' is the corpse on the floor. That's right, he fakes being shot in the head for ten freaking hours so well that the trained doctor sitting three feet away can't spot it. There. That saved you the cost of a rental.)
That said, I know not everyone feels the same way I do. So here's a spoiler cut, for those of you who want to experience 'Iron Man 3' without knowing the twist.
So if you're reading this, I assume that either you saw it and know that the Mandarin is a great big red herring for the real villain, Aldrich Killian, or else you don't care enough about spoilers to mind hearing that. Your opinions on this probably vary wildly, though. Because on the one hand, the Mandarin is one of the iconic Iron Man villains, a super-genius with alien technology and a vision of world domination. He's one of the few Iron Man villains who has a greater ambition than "I want to make lots of money" or "I want to see Tony Stark suffer", and at some point you need that kind of A-list villain. Let's be blunt, Tony's A-list villains are few and far between--you're not going to get a major movie out of the Melter, the Unicorn, or Firebrand (although Firebrand arguably could be upgraded to one. Ditto with the Titanium Man, and possibly the Crimson Dynamo if you do a lot of reworking to get around the fact that there is no Soviet Union anymore.)
But on the other hand, the Mandarin is...well, this is where people say, "He's problematic", but let's drop the fan-entitlement-nothing-I-love-can-ever-truly-be-bad-just-misunderstood garbage and call it what it is. The Mandarin is incredibly racist. He is the legacy of rampant, xenophobic paranoia about Sinister Orientals coming to Kidnap Our Women and Addict Our Young Men To Drugs, a cruel and embarrassing stereotype that's more or less been grandfathered into the current comic books by dint of having been around in an age when being a racist wasn't that big of a deal. When you are relaunching the Iron Man series for a general audience, in the modern age, with an eye towards appealing to nationalities other than American-F**k-Yeah, the Mandarin is a non-starter.
The popular answer seemed to be, "Well, you could update him by making him Middle Eastern," which is where the first two Iron Man movies seemed to be going with the concept. To that I answer, yes, that's the perfect answer to allegations that a character is a racist and xenophobic stereotype. Stop making him a racist and xenophobic Asian stereotype, and start making him a racist and xenophobic Middle Eastern stereotype! That'll show everyone how much more enlightened we are.
No, Shane Black did the only thing you can do with the Mandarin now. He used him--quite cleverly--to examine the ways that the rich and the powerful use that xenophobia, that fear of the Other, to distract us from the ways they're really just a bunch of ambitious crooks in fancy suits. The Mandarin is a minstrel show, a calculated attempt to give everyone the terrorist they know is out there (either to give a plausible excuse for all the little "industrial accidents" Killian's been having with Extremis, or to give them a boogeyman that will justify the exorbitant price tag that Killian will put on his weaksauce super-soldiers, or both. Probably it started with the former and moved to the latter as he got more ambitious, but I digress.)
This is perfect. Instead of sweeping the racist history of the character under the rug, or worse running with it, the Mandarin is used to examine the ways that xenophobic propaganda is used to turn off our brains. To stop us thinking and start us reacting. It's a much more interesting idea than any use of the Mandarin as he's done in the comics ever could be, and frankly a much better use of the Extremis concept (which I frankly think was one of many wrong turnings for the series after...um...okay, I confess that I really don't think 'Iron Man' has been any good as a comic since Tony had his heart surgery. Which bodes ill for 'Iron Man 4', but let's cross that bridge when we come to it.)
Plus, it gave us Ben Kingsley's absolutely hilarious turn as "Trevor", the drug-addled method actor behind the Mandarin, which is frankly worth the cost of admission alone (and which I suspect got Ben Kingsley to sign on for the role.) And it explains the terrible American accent, which is one of those lovely jokes that Kingsley snuck in that only Brits and people who've watched 'Doctor Who' will get. (Kingsley is doing the kind of American accent that really bad British actors do when they're trying to do an American accent, with over-emphasis on the r's at the ends of words because it's what they notice most about us when we talk. 'Tomb of the Cybermen' has one of the all-time great bad American accents.)
So in case it wasn't clear, I am all in favor of this take on the Mandarin. I do not want to see a future movie where we see that the "real" Mandarin was behind all this, because the whole point of this movie is that there shouldn't be a "real" Mandarin. It's a concept that should be allowed to die the same death as blackface and the Lone Ranger's sidekick........
....oh. Right. Oh well.