***This article contains major spoilers for Iron Man 3, in theaters now.***
The freshly released Iron Man 3 contains at least one genuine surprise, and at the recent press junket for the film in Los Angeles, we got to talk about it in detail with the movie's director and co-screenwriter, Shane Black, and Marvel Studios president of production Kevin Feige.
(Seriously, if you haven't seen the film yet, turn away now.)
Back in October 2011, Black was widely quoted as calling The Mandarin a "racist caricature," leaving many observers to assume he had no interest in using the character in his first Marvel Studios film. Then word started circulating that The Mandarin was in fact a part of the story, leaving fans to get even more confused when British actor Ben Kingsley was reported to be playing the role. Then the first trailers surfaced, with Kingsley as a Mandarin who had a strong visually resemblance to the comic book character, but sounded and acted like a distinct departure from the usual Chinese warlord.
The film itself reveals why: About two-thirds of the way into Iron Man 3, The Mandarin is revealed to actually be a fictional character invented by Aldrich Killian; meaning that Ben Kingsley is in fact playing a boozy British actor/patsy named Trevor Slattery. While that circumvents problematic racial territory, it also runs the risk of alienating long-term comic book fans hoping to see the nearly 50-year-old comic book villain truly realized on screen for the first time. Here are Black and Feige's comments on Iron Man 3's version of The Mandarin.
Newsarama: Shane, Kevin, wanted to talk about the decision to go this route with The Mandarin — what motivated this move, which will likely turn out to be a polarizing one with some fans? And was it ever a consideration to do a more conventional version of the character?
Shane Black: I think the only alternative that ever existed was to do him as a terrorist who was for real, but who's not necessarily the stereotypically Yellow Peril-type menace. That's off the books; we don't want that.
What we could do was maybe do a version of the Mandarin that you would see in this story, except have him actually be this sort of mythic über-terrorist, who is this Colonel Kurtz character who's gone astray.
But then we took it another step, which is to reverse that as well. It just seemed to me more interesting that this could be about media and perception, and basically that the Mandarin, instead of some mythic guy in a jungle who picked up magic rings — what if that's what you heard? What if it was more just people following this figure, like Game of Thrones — "does he turn into a wolf at night?" That sort of thing. Maybe people believe he does, because he's a created figure. He's based on Castro, he's based on Gaddafi, he's surrounded himself with iconography of warfare like swords and dragons and thrones. To literally take the Game of Thrones approach that he's someone we believe in, but maybe he's not real, I thought that was more interesting, in a way. That he's the created, magical version of a legend. Maybe the Mandarin in the comics was a legend, as well.
Kevin Feige: There was no choice but to reinterpret the character, obviously. One of the reasons Marvel characters are still as relevant today as they were 50 years ago — longer, in the case of Captain America, 70 years — is because of reinterpretation. Because they often stay true to the core beings and belief systems of the characters, but constantly switching them up a little bit.
Black: Also, The Mandarin, as Kevin has pointed out — it's not like he's a classic villain in the sense you go, "Oh my god, remember that great Mandarin story?" You go, "Well, no, not really, do you?" "No, I guess we don't." But he's been around a long time. It's like Bob Hope. Everyone says, "Bob Hope! Classic comedian!" Yet for the last 20 years of his life, it's like, "That's not funny."