The Iron Orient


The cover of Tales of Suspense #50, February 1...

The cover of Tales of Suspense #50, February 1964. Art by Jack Kirby. First appearance of the Mandarin. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the film Iron Man 3, the Mandarin is not a Chinese man with a militant hatred for western capitalism but rather a Wag the Dog fabrication of techno-terrorists A.I.M..

Fans, have you been let down? You may begin with concern. You may think, isn’t this folding away a major character in the source material by saying he’s too strange for the big screen? Surely, screenwriters could have maintained the character’s general identity while pruning the Yellow Peril overtones of his emergence (as comic book writers have done for decades). And shouldn’t super hero movies accept the strangeness of their mother texts, lest they charge forth into the public consciousness representing not a beloved mythology but rather the watered-down, focus group-tested lameness of stereotypical Hollywood executives? Let us acknowledge the soundness of these fears.

And then, let us step forward into the light that is their counter-argument; the Mandarin as he exists in the comics is an anachronism. Even in a reworked incarnation that takes pains to scrub the stench of racism, the Mandarin is essentially the opposite of Tony Stark across a selection of irrelevant oppositions: capitalist vs. feudalist, Western vs. non-Western, technologist vs. mystic. Capitalism has its critics, but surely those who call on the social traditions of the middle ages have had their day. The West does not face a true opponent in the other civilizations of the world but rather a panoply of trading partners and discontents that only the most jingoistic Westerners imagine as enemies. Ever since gunpowder came on the scene, followers of science have been 10-to-1 favorites in every fight against the dark arts (even Mandarin’s own magical instruments are exposed as advanced science in the comics).

Why would Tony Stark do battle with such a character? What would mysticism, feudalism and Chinese isolationism produce on the battlefield that could remotely compare to the awesome power of the power armor? Any leveling of the playing field to facilitate drama (it’s a movie – let’s have drama) would necessitate an undermining of the Mandarin’s own character. I remember an episode of the 90’s Iron Man cartoon in which the Mandarin acquired a mechanized combat suit of his own, and while Tony pointed out the hypocrisy, the ensuing fight, strikingly evenly matched, proved more memorable than any plot the villain had previously concocted while wearing what American artists guessed to be Chinese garb. Consider even the Mandarin’s speech – doesn’t he speak fluent English? Why would an avowed nemesis of the West indulge an emissary of the Great Devil by speaking his own language? The language of business?

So, the filmmakers reworked the character into something relevant. We are more threatened by the illusory potential of our media and the godly might of the most powerful Westerners than any manually accessorized Eastern foe. If we can forgive the taste of conspiracy theory, we can appreciate in this film a metaphor for the vulnerabilities of our current society. The threats we see on television terrify us well before we know whether or not those threats are real. Are the prisoners of Guantanamo Bay menacing villains or pitiable patsies? Who knows – but they sure are scary at the moment, so a gulag is made. What kind of government response does terrorism warrant? Hold that thought while countless companies secure pricy contracts to build things that make us feel safer.

A.I.M. presents the public with an old-fashioned enemy to encourage an old-fashioned narrative of clear good guys and bad guys. This narrative acts as a cover for their more complex machinations. Those who long for the simple villain to be the actual story are unwittingly acting out a possible subtext of the film: that many will forego mastering the complexities of the modern age in favor of clinging to comfortable plays of cowboys and Indians.

A final, melodramatic assertion: by frowning on that which is modern and demanding a return to the old ways, do we not make ourselves the original Mandarin?


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