In Defense of IM3’s Mandarin Retcon

In the last few weeks, director Shane Black has taken to discussing the logistics, planning, and thought-processes behind the making of Iron Man 3. Over the course of a series of interviews in connection with the press tour for his most recent release, The Nice Guys, Black has revealed several interesting pieces of information about the making of the Marvel Studio’s 2013 blockbuster that have been much discussed. The revelation that the film’s first script draft featured a female villain—a decision that was unilaterally overruled by the studio—was met by a wide-array of critical responses, while Black’s assertion that he stands by the decision to retcon the character of the Mandarin, in spite of the fact that it was highly controversial among die-hard fans of the comics, has somewhat reignited the debate surrounding the adaptation of the character for film.

For my part, I actually really loved the retcon.

I didn’t expect to love the Mandarin as much as I did. When I first learned that Sir Ben Kingsley had been cast to play the character (sometime in 2012, as I recall), I came to the conclusion that I was going to have to give the film a pass. I was not overly familiar with the character—my only exposure to him having come during the “Acts of Vengeance!” crossover, when he appeared (very briefly) in a three-issue arc of Uncanny X-Men(1)—but I was well aware of the fact that the Mandarin is a Chinese character and that Ben Kingsley is neither Chinese nor of Chinese ancestry. It pained me to think of missing the fun of seeing an Iron Man movie on the big screen, but I felt that I couldn’t let the whitewashing of such a prominent character go. As the release date drew closer, however, Shane Black—the film’s director and co-writer—began to give interviews in which he discussed the character’s racial dimension and assured viewers that it would be dealt with in the narrative.(2) I began to be intrigued, and so I went ahead and bought a ticket.

And I was blown away.

ben-kingsley-as-the-mandarin-in-iron-man-3
Sir Ben Kingsley as Trevor Slattery (aka the “Mandarin”)
Iron Man 3 (2013), dir. Shane Black

The brilliance of Iron Man 3‘s Mandarin is in the way the character taps in to, and critiques, the socio-politics of the post-9/11 world. Since September 11th, the United States—or at the very least a certain percentage of its population—has grown increasingly paranoid about the potential of so-called outsiders (read: non-white people, particularly from the Middle East) to pose a threat to American security at home and abroad, and it is this narrative that the film responds to. The “Mandarin” of Iron Man 3 looks exactly like what many people in the US think a terrorist looks like, while the true villain of the film, Aldrich Killian, looks much more like what the majority of US domestic terrorists actually look like. Thus, in showcasing the dynamic between perceived threat and real threat, the film makes a powerful statement about the nationalism and xenophobia that have made American political and cultural discourse so fraught. It was an audacious experiment in incorporating relevant social commentary into the subtext of a comic book film, and I would argue that the success of Iron Man 3 paved the way somewhat for Captain America: The Winter Soldier to offer relevant social commentary as subtext as well.

The retconning of the Mandarin in Iron Man 3 is not perfect, however. Though it was a highly creative choice that enabled the filmmakers to both make a statement about contemporary geopolitics and correct for the racist elements that often (though not always) characterized the depiction of the Mandarin in the comic books, it also essentially sidestepped the problem of racist representation by simply erasing the character’s heritage. This is an unfortunately typical approach to adapting racist characters for film or television. Rather than do the work necessary to present representation that defies stereotypes, many creators choose to cut the Gordian Knot by making problematic characters of color white—an act that is based on the erroneous, but extremely widespread, assumption that whiteness somehow equals universalness or neutrality. In addition to this, adding insult to injury, the decision to incorporate the All Hall the King one-shot into the canon of the MCU resulted in the nullifying the positive elements of the film’s retcon while simultaneously failing to correct for the franchise’s problem with diversity. By introducing an as-yet-unseen Mandarin through a white proxy (played by Scoot McNairy), the producers essentially denied the central premise of Iron Man 3—that we create our own demons and we need to think very carefully about why that is and how we’re going to address it—while adding virtually nothing of value.

Notes
1) The Uncanny X-Men “Acts of Vengeance!” tie-in took place in issues 256, 257, and 258 (published in late 1989 and early 1990), and the Mandarin only actually appeared in issues 256 and 258. The “Acts of Vengeance!” crossover, and the Uncanny X-Men tie-in series, are available digitally on Marvel Unlimited.
2) While I distinctly remember reading an article in which Black acknowledged fan concerns about the character and asked people to see the film before evaluating how they elected to handle the racial elements, I cannot find a source for that and may be misremembering. 

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