In 2011, Iron Man 3 director and co-writer Shane Black was widely quoted as calling long-time comic book villain The Mandarin a "racist caricature."
Yet, English actor Ben Kingsley was cast in the role, and features heavily in the marketing for the Marvel Studios film, which debuts in North American theaters on May 3. At a press conference in Los Angeles on Monday, Black discussed his decision to include the character, traditionally depicted as a Chinese warlord.
"If you're going to do something that involves a terrorist in a modern world," Black told reporters, "Who's just sort of a villain, who's just sort of a guy that we're all afraid of, why not say something about the entire experience of what it would take to create a myth that was all things to all people? That drew from elements of traditional historic warfare like swords and dragons — surrounded itself with icons that were recognizable like the beard from Fidel Castro, and the field cap from Gaddafi.
"Why not make an über-terrorist, and then play with the idea of that?" Black continued. "Have that man's sole unifying characteristic be his undying hatred for America, such that he attracts to him these acolytes and disciples who respond to the myth? We thought that was an interesting idea, regardless of his ethnicity."
The conference, which also included the film's co-writer Drew Pearce, plus actors Guy Peace (Aldrich Killian) and Rebecca Hall (Maya Hansen), included discussion of Black — known for profanity-heavy R-rated fare like Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and Lethal Weapon — returning to more family-friendly entertainment (one of his first screenwriting credits was 1987's The Monster Squad).
"I remember what it was like when I went to the matinee to stand in line for Empire Strikes Back and those types of films, and get excited all over again about that type of adventure," Black said. "That you could appeal to a family, but it was still edgy. We didn't want to pander. We didn't want to make a kiddie film. But we knew very well that we couldn't go beyond the boundaries of PG-13."
"We've got a bunch of brilliant actors as well, which helps so much, because they can give it the swing and feel of grown-up conversation, without necessarily having to hit the 'F-button,'" Drew Pearce added.
One thing that Iron Man 3 has in common with some of Black's notable past work is that, like Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and the original Lethal Weapon, the film takes place over Christmas, with Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) and Pepper Potts' (Gwyenth Paltrow) holiday celebrations disrupted by The Mandarin's Extremis-fueled plot.
Black said he initially resisted the setting, but was convinced by his co-writer.
"If you're doing something on an interesting scale that involves an entire universe of characters, one way to unite them is to have them all undergo a common experience, and there is something at Christmas that unites everybody," Black said. "It already sets a stage within a stage; wherever you are, you're experiencing this world together."
Iron Man 3 marks a reunion for Downey and Black, who previously worked together on 2005's Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. Black had previously discussed the first Iron Man with Downey and that film's director (and the franchise's Happy Hogan), Jon Favreau.
"I had sat with [Downey] and [Jon] Favreau during the inception of the first Iron Man, during those early phases," Black said. "I was impressed with the project; was impressed with both of them. The chance to have a greenlit picture where I got to work again with Robert Downey, and also spend time with Jon Favreau, who gave me endless tips and advice on this thing, was too attractive to pass."
Following the massive superhero action of last year's ultra-hit The Avengers, Iron Man 3 — while referencing the prior film at several points — is much more of a character-driven solo adventure on a smaller scale, with more personal stakes for Tony Stark. Black said that was a definite goal when constructing the movie.
"Our ambitions were to make sure that we had a movie that felt like a worthy successor to the two previous Favreau films, and to Marvel's credit, they said, 'We've done The Avengers, we made a lot of money, but let's not do that again right now. Let's do something different,'" Black related. "They allowed for a different, sort of standalone film, where we got to be more character-centric and looked back to basics at what Tony Stark would do next. What was left to tell of his story. And that was very appealing to me. To make it more of a thriller, and to make it more about Tony, and less otherworldly, sort of just grounded more — that was our intention. I hope we succeeded."