All Hail the King: Marvel’s Greatest Twist Ruined?

Now that Thor: The Dark World has come out on DVD and Blu-Ray, we finally get a glimpse of the future of Iron Man and the Mandarin in the one-shot All Hail the King. It’s a good a time as any to discuss the Mandarin in Iron Man 3 what the one-shot will mean for him. Be warned, there will be spoilers for Iron Man 3 and All Hail the King.

Firstly, my thoughts on Iron Man 3: I loved it. It was a very fun romp with solid performances, which effectively followed up on The Avengers. We get to see Tony Stark (played as deliciously as ever by Robert Downey Jr) go through understandable trauma after realising how insignificant his main brainchild is after New York and re-build himself, discovering his sense of purpose at last. Moreover, Brian Tyler’s score finally gives Iron Man a proper musical identity, which has remained undefined in his previous outings. Iron Man 3 is also the only Marvel film to date to have an opening which left me both gob smacked and immediately looking forward for more (Eiffel 65’s Blue is high on the playlist of my 90s childhood). So I’m not ashamed to say I had quite the smile leaving the cinema.

My definition of awesome.
Copyright Marvel Entertainment

Many apparently did not, though, whining that they were offended by the big twist of the Mandarin being revealed to be a washed-up actor, Trevor Slattery (played by Sir Ben Kingsley). I, on the other hand, adored every second of it. It was genuinely unexpected – which is no insignificant feat in today’s media-driven world – and smart.

Bringing The Mandarin to the Silver Screen

Let me elaborate. Speaking as someone who grew up watching the great 90s cartoons – including Iron Man and its great Mandarin – I have to take issue with the oft-cited criticism made by the more obsessive fanboys of ‘ruining the character of the Mandarin’. First of all, we all have to accept that this particular iteration of the Marvel universe is made by fans, but has entered the mainstream and is no longer made exclusively for fans. Sometimes, this means that some differences from comic book canon – which will continue to exist regardless – could result in better stories. When it comes to the Mandarin, the fact remains that, while developed since his original appearance, the character’s comic origins make him problematic to bring to the screen and commit to his roots. As Marjorie M. Liu stated in relation to the casting of the Mandarin in the film:

The Mandarin is pretty much a direct descendent of the Fu Manchu yellow peril caricature-at best Orientalist, at worst, racist. The diabolic Asiatic is a hoary Hollywood staple – one of many stereotypes that Asian Americana have long had to endure – whether it’s the Fu Manchu, the Kung Fu master, the Dragon Lady, or the bucktooth nerd. What’s amazing is that China through its economic might has succeeded in extracting from Hollywood what civil rights groups and Asian American petitions have been unable to: more respectful representations of its citizens. If only every minority group had a massive economy! No more Jar-Jar Binks, no more Hugo Weaving playing a future Korean but looking more like a bad cosplay Romulan.

Much like Iron Man’s own origin is updated to reflect the American presence in the Middle East in the first film, the Mandarin is seemingly turned into a terrorist from the region.  While fundamentalist Islamists have, understandably, become the new foreign bogeyman of our age, I doubt it would be beneficial to simply shift the racist undertones of the Mandarin rather than eliminate them.

IronManMandarin

Hardly the stuff of 21st century villainy
Copyright Marvel Comics

Some may have also been excited by the fact that the Mandarin represents one side of the mysticism-technology divide, with Tony Stark obviously being the other. It’s fair to say that it would be an interesting direction to take Iron Man, as the villains have been so similar so far, with a technology business rival within Stark Industries in the first film (Obadiah Stane, played by Jeff Bridges), and a technology business rival outside Stark industries in the second (Justin Hammer, played by Sam Rockwell). However, again, adhering to the Mandarin character in the comics is problematic. His Ten Rings of Power are revealed to be alien technology (Iron Man #274, 1991), so, beneath the veil of mysticism, Iron Man would still have to face yet another technologically-driven adversary. To add insult to injury, subsequent appearances (Charles and Daniel Knauf’s 2007 Iron Man run) put the Mandarin in a suit and put him at the helm of Prometheus Gentech, setting him up to be a business rival of Stark’s specialising in bio-engineered weaponry. While moving the character further away from his roots and developing him into a villain who is Chinese – rather than a Chinese villain – this does put him in the same group as Hammer and Stane.

Ying and Yang? Hardly.

Ying and Yang? Hardly.
Copyright Marvel Comics

To the writers’ credit, Iron Man 3 takes the Mandarin’s real-world history as ‘Yellow Peril’ and uses it as commentary on our current culture and its relation to the media. The Mandarin is turned into a walking stereotype that is actually used by the real villain, Aldrich Killian (played by Guy Pierce) to hide his own machinations. It’s a terrific parallel to our own relationship with the media, which I can only describe as part of a vicious cycle. Media exposure can shape the stories we demand (often sex, drugs and violence), and reporters have to balance out their roles as truth-tellers and newspaper-sellers. What often happens is that the truth is twisted into sensational, context-less sound bites, which we consume, become accustomed to, and demand more of, which editors and reports seek to provide, and so on. The Mandarin kills an unnamed lawyer of an unspecified company on our screens, and no one thinks about checking to verify if that’s really what happens before threatening to go get him (which Tony Stark tellingly get punished for here).

The lengths to which we can be manipulated by the media have already been demonstrated more than once since Iron Man 3 was released. The story of Jang Song-thaek being torn to pieces by starving dogs was proven to be false and based on a satirical article. Some time later, the same newspaper that  published a satirical blog post circulated its fictional quotes of Rep. Michele Bachmann using Stephen Hawking’s admission on black holes to denounce science itself as reality. There is a sliver of truth in both cases: North Korea is indeed a barbaric and horrible place to live in, and Bachmann’s beliefs do indicate her anti-scientific disposition. However, the fact remains that both stories took satire reflecting our stereotypes and used it to transform bits of news into sensational stories, to the detriment of factual reporting. It isn’t that hard to imagine someone like Killian managing to manipulate the media and American pro-interventionism for his own war profiteering in our world.

It also has to be said that our own relation to films has nowadays become quite similar. How many times have we been duped by amazing trailers for less-than-stellar films? Surely the trailer for Snow White and The Huntsman and the teaser for The Last Airbender gave no clue about what would follow. Someone at Marvel had the bright idea to use this to their advantage, employing marketing itself and our susceptibility to the media to build up the Mandarin:

It’s as if we’re watching an in-universe film trailer in making the Mandarin a credible threat, preying upon our expectations. It makes the twist that much better when it comes, such a genuine surprise and such a nice little bit of meta commentary and fourth wall breaking. “You will never see me coming” indeed.

In fact, the only problem about that the Mandarin twist is that The Ten Rings was an actual organisation in the original Iron Man, and was mentioned as a black market contact by Justin Hammer in its sequel. Surely such a group would not allow their imagery to be appropriated by one businessman, would they? Some intuition could nonetheless explain this as The Ten Rings simply falling apart in the background following Iron Man and Obadiah Stane’s attacks. Or, perhaps, they were financed by Killian all along to create a market for his weapons. This small thread being left unexplained explicitly is still only a small nit-pick in the end.

In short, the way the Mandarin twist concurrently played with our expectations as Westerners, comic book fans and film-goers is what makes it so smart, and why it gets my wholehearted support and acceptance.

All Hail the King

The one-shot picks up where Iron Man 3 left off. Trevor Slattery adapts pretty well to prison life, becoming a celebrity among his fellow prisoners and being protected by his own ‘butler’. One interviewer, Jackson Norris, wants to learn more about Trevor, and sets up his camera ready to dig deeper into the larger-than life character of the Mandarin.

As the interview goes on, it becomes obvious things are not as they seem, as the camera seems to be assembling something within and the interviewer becomes increasinglu agitated once Trevor reveals he genuinely didn’t know about the history of the Mandarin and The Ten Rings and didn’t even care to do his research. A gun emerges from the camera, which Norris immediately uses to kill all the guards (and, regretfully, Trevor’s butler) in the room. Holding Trevor at gunpoint, he announces his intention to get Trevor out of prison to face the wrath of the real Mandarin for abusing of his name.

Like the one-shots before it, this one’s a real gem that deserves to join its film progenitor on the big screen. The title of the one-shot is a witty play on words referring to both Trevor and the real Mandarin, and the interviewer’s words (as heard above) remain an honest admission despite the different meaning they gain by the end. It’s well acted, has a great dose of comedy and enriches the Marvel cinematic universe with its addition to the canon. There’s even a funny cameo inserted into the credits.

So does the admission that there is another Mandarin, probably closer to his comic book counterpart, ruin the original twist? While I ultimately feel that adding a real Mandarin is a reaction to the disapproving and vocal fanboys (whether in hindsight or otherwise), the original twist isn’t really ruined. The fact remains that Aldrich Killian still used the image of something he did not understand (apparently this lack of understanding was deeper than we first thought), only we now know that he has also awoken a beast in doing so. The original message of the manipulation of the media is still there for all to see.

Part of me will, admittedly, always feel that it’s a shame that Marvel didn’t stick to their guns and spare us from the comic book doppelgänger cliché, leaving the Mandarin as he was in Iron Man 3. As things stand, it would be perfectly fine for this to be his last appearance, leaving the rest to our imaginations. I nonetheless hope to see more of what the future will bring for both Trevor Slattery and the original Mandarin within the Marvel cinematic universe.

The future looks bright, despite this predicament. Copyright Marvel Entertainment

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One response to “All Hail the King: Marvel’s Greatest Twist Ruined?

  1. Pingback: Marvel Studios Doesn’t Need Spidey and the X-Men | The Maltese Geek·

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