Tuesday, May 07, 2013

Why 'Iron Man 3' **spoilers** Instead of **spoilers spoilers spoilers**

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.

9 comments:

Anonymous said...

You DID get a big budget movie with The Melter as the main villain. It's called "Iron Man 3".

The EXTREMIS virus gave everyone Melter powers.

Eric Teall said...

I very much agree, John. While I think a simple non-racist Mandarin could be done, IM3's version does a bang-up job of acknowledging the character's difficult past while insightfully exploiting it.

Tony Laplume said...

I think you've just succeeded in selling this movie on me. No other reaction that I've read mentioned this level of cleverness much less political insightfulness. Bravo.

Dean said...

Also, now we have AIM, the stage is set for MODOK in Iron Man 4!

Fakefaux said...

The thing is, the changes to the Mandarin didn't bug me too much because I was never really invested in the Mandarin. You, MGK, and Tim O'Neil all argue that he's a great character, aside from the racism issues, but to me the racism issues have only ever been part of the problem.

Mandarin's motivations, that he's descended from Genghis Khan and therefore wants to continue the world domination schemes of the Mongols, are lifted wholesale from one of the old Fu Manchu movies. He's never had a ton of personality beyond sneering arrogance. It's worth noting that in recent years there were two very different attempts to reinvigorate that character, one by Daniel Knauf, the other by Matt Fraction. Knauf tries to portray Mandarin as a misguided extremist in the vein of Ra's al Ghul, while Fraction creates a Kim Jong Il pastiche. Neither one of them can seem to decide on who the character is at his core.

That's always been the issue for Mandarin with me. He's what the Venture Bros. would call a dimestore Dr. Doom, just another meglomaniac villain with delusions of world conquest, overshadowed by better known villains with more interesting characterization. It seems like he only became Tony's archnemesis by default, because he was the best option out of a terrible lineup. So, really, as far as I'm concerned, the movies can do whatever they like with him.

Though I will grant that a battle with a Mandarin who has working rings would have been fun to see on the big screen.

mrjl said...

I don't believe the fear of the "other" is inherently racist. If it was groups like the NRA wouldn't have to spend so much trying to shift people's fears after things like New Town.

Oddstar said...

You make some good points, but that doesn't change the fact that the movie still wasn't very good. The first Iron Man was a great movie because it was really a classic screwball romantic comedy masquerading as a superhero action film. The interactions between Tony and Pepper were what made the whole film worthwhile. The interactions between the two of them were also the high point of The Avengers. In Iron Man 2 and Iron Man 3, they get barely a couple of minutes of screen-time together, with barely any of the witty banter that made the first film so much fun. (I don't know if it was the writers, the director, or Downey himself, but someone seems to have gotten the idea that having Tony talk really fast would somehow make him funny; needless to say, it doesn't. Go rewatch the first film, because he didn't do that there.) All that being said, Ben Kingsley was terrific, and the subplot with the Mandarin was the only genuinely funny part of the movie. Well, that and the cameo by Ruffalo.

John Seavey said...

@Anonymous: I'd say if you have to ditch the character's name, costume, modus operandi, motivations, secret identity, and...um, everything but the powers (which, arguably, came not from the Melter but from the villain in the Extremis storyline, who also had heat powers) then you're proving my point that you're not getting a major movie out of him. :)

@Fakefaux: Oh, I'm totally willing to be persuaded that in addition to being racist, he's also crap. :) But I'd say that he's certainly better than most of Iron Man's other villains, who tend to be hired guns (already used in 'Iron Man 2') or guys with a grudge against Tony Stark (already used in 'Iron Man 2'.) The Mandarin has something to give the series that it doesn't already have, which is his advantage at this point.

@Oddstar: It wasn't perfect, I agree. It was "tell don't show" far too often, and there's not really a point where you feel like Tony is opposing this because it's actually immoral, instead of because they hurt his friends and blew up his house. It feels like a petulant rich kid defending his stuff, not a hero standing up against the ruthless military exploitation of technology that could benefit the human race, and that's a flaw. But the Mandarin, specifically, is not a flaw, and I've heard it argued that he was.

Yxl Ian said...

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