On Terrorism + Iron Man 3
[Originally published in May 2013, on Racialicious.com]
If you haven’t seen Iron Man 3 yet and you remain blissfully unspoiled where it comes to the movie’s main villain, turn back now. Unlike the marketing teams for certain other summer flicks (*cough
* Star Trek *cough*) Marvel and Disney did far too good a job of hiding The Mandarin’s ultimate goals for you to ruin it for yourself now.
But here’s a clue: The Mandarin is not Khan.
For those of you who don’t know anything about The Mardarin aside from the Ben Kingsley casting controversy, I’ll let Marvel Comics break it down briefly:
Born circa 1920, the future Mandarin was raised by his embittered aunt following his parents’ deaths, and as an adult he used his brilliance and family wealth to attain prominence in the Kuomintang Party’s reign over China. The Communist Revolution of 1949 cost him his position and power, although the population he had once commanded still regarded him with nigh-mystic awe. After years of seeking some means of regaining greatness, he ventured into the mysterious Valley of Spirits, where he discovered the millennia-old wreckage of a starship of the reptilian Kakaranatharian, or Makluan, extraterrestrial race, and the ten mighty rings which had powered the vessel
…Iron Man visited China to investigate the Mandarin for the U.S. government. Using the rings and his own combat skills, the Mandarin nearly defeated Iron Man, who nonetheless outwitted him and escaped. Soon after, the pair again clashed when the Mandarin pulled Stark surveillance missiles from the sky to use for his own purposes, then manipulated the Chinese government into test-firing a missile which, unknown to them, was intended to trigger world war, but Iron Man defeated him both times.
It’s essentially your standard superhero/supervillain dichotomy after that, as The Mandarin is to Iron Man as Lex Luthor is to Superman. China has always been an important part of his backstory as his original base of power, and the Mandarin had always been portrayed as Chinese. So when it was announced that Ben Kingsley would be playing The Mandarin we were all, by rights, slightly perturbed.
Iron Man 3’s Mandarin is first shown (and spent almost a year being marketed as) a shadowy Osama Bin Laden-like figure whose terrorist attacks were always bookended by a hacked video broadcasts from a fortress in some unknown location. Given the first film’s use of terrorism in another unknown (yet Middle Eastern) country it was easy to assume that the franchise was going to ride this foreign terrorist thing all the way to the bank. That’s exactly what director Shane Black wanted.
Ben Kingsley gets away with becoming The Mandarin, because The Mandarin is nothing more than a ploy to capitalise on the American assumption that the face of terrorism will never look like Guy Pierce… despite the ever growing pile of evidence to the contrary. When JARVIS tells Tony that he should be looking for the supposed terrorist in Miami rather than Pakistan, Iran, or any other number of places his first thought is to reboot JARVIS for a correction. As The Mandarin executes attacks around the United States, the government sends James Rhodes to attack and ferret at the terrorists where they ‘live’ — again, the Middle East. And, while another viewing may be necessary, it seemed that no one ever questioned the logic of searching for someone who calls himself “The Mandarin,” styles himself with a stereotypical Fu Man Chu look, and surrounds himself with (presumably) Chinese women in the Middle East. Really, that was the first place you thought to look?
When Tony eventually does get to Miami (after a wonderful 20 minute diversion into a 90s style action flick that is maybe the Shane Black-iest part of it all) he’s shocked to find that the Mandarin isn’t the terrifying Osama-esque terrorist he’s been expecting. Instead he’s a British shlub named Trevor whose dreams of acting have led him here, where in exchange for being the face of terrorism, he’s surrounded by women, booze, and footie matches on a giant flat screen. He’s not even aware that anyone’s really been hurt. The real terrorist here is Guy Pierce’s Aldrich Killian who’s set up the attacks for his own benefits. Knowing that America would be ready to accept the image of a maybe-possibly-is-he-or-isn’t-he-not-white foreign terrorist without question, he’s used Trevor to avoid being caught. He’s using the racism we employ in our “War Against Terror” against us.
As we have to do after each new successful or foiled act of terrorism in America, Iron Man 3 forces Marvel-verse America to confront ideas of what they automatically imagine a terrorist to be. Given the events of the last few weeks the question has become more topical than anyone involved in the film likely could have assumed.
Opinions on the movie and The Mandarin are probably going to be varied, but it’s a good opportunity for discussion (which we heartily encourage you to engage in below). Had Ben Kingsley been hired to play the Marvel 616 version of The Mandarin described above this would have been a very different post,. However, subverting the terrorism tropes set up in Iron Man 1 seemed to be exactly what Shane Black and co. were going for and this was a better movie than it’s predecessors for it.