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The Mandarin Candidate: Legacies From A By-Gone Era

Jon Favreau has effectively confirmed that “the Mandarin” will be the villain for Iron Man 3. Of course, the fact that this particular opponent has been the character’s arch nemesis means that we would have expected him on celluloid long before this – most superhero movies take great joy in using the archnemesis for the original film, after all (Batman Begins managed to just about do without the Joker, but arguably only because he’d already done Batman). Part of the reason it may have taken so long to transition this particular character to the big screen may have something to do with his origins: essentially the character is a yellow peril villain (as the name implies), who was arguably long out of date when he was introduced, let alone now. Favreau has, diplomatically, acknowledged that the character is going to take great care to get ready for a film role, and it got us thinking: how do we deal with long term and iconic characters who may reflect concepts that we aren’t particularly comfortable with right now?

Yep, this doesn't conjure up any unfortunate implications at all...

This is arguably the same dilemma that Disney face with The Song of the South. The movie, famous as the source of the “zippidy doo-da” song used in all those Disney home video advertisements, featured what might be described as a positive image of the master-slave relationship in the Deep South. This has understandable caused a bit of bother for the company, who have effectively permanently shelved the movie and have stated that they never plan to release it again – to people of my generation, this film will remain a “lost” Disney film (though animated non-(or less-)racist sections are still in circulation, and form the basis for the Splash Mountain ride in Disneyworld, creating the odd situation where most of the people enjoying the ride have no idea of its origins). In fairness, I don’t have a particular problem with Disney taking the movie out of circulation – given the fact that Disney films are primarily aimed at children, it seems an act of corporate responsibility (Roger Ebert argues this point far better than your humble narrator, though).

Still, what if it isn’t the whole project itself, but one particular aspect of it? What if you want to make the movie anyway? How do you do something like that delicately? Perhaps Flash Gordon is a good example, featuring its own yellow peril antagonist in the form of Ming the Merciless (the name is a bit of hint). In fact, that sort of villain was in vogue for quite a while, with the Fu Manchu archetype become quite a pulp phenomenon. If one can look past the racist connotations, one can see the exotic appeal that such a foe must have presented just as the world was opening up, and the rich flair which that sort of culture and style offered to those crafting the tales. This doesn’t excuse the close-minded racism inherent in the portayals, nor does it help them sit any easier in the modern day.

There seem to be two different ideas on how large-scale productions deal with this sort of dilemma in going back to source material. Well, three if you consider “ignoring it” a valid option, which is what Iron Man arguably did by offering a one-time comic book villain instead of the character’s archnemesis or The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen did in completely avoiding the Manchu-esque character of “the Doctor” in adapting (in the loosest sense) Alan Moore’s book. However, if you don’t want to ignore it, you relaly have two options.

The first is to use the character, but completely ignore unpleasant aspects. Take the relaunched Flash Gordon television show as an example (I think it may have lasted half-a-year). Anyway, the show offered “Ming” as a blonde, clean-shaven caucasian, typically seen more in a business suit than in any of the character’s stereotypically over-the-top Asian-influenced trappings. The dangers of such an approach are obvious – you need to be very careful when changing any element of a franchise in transitioning from one medium to another, but you also need to keep in mind that there’s a point when you fundamentally alter a character so much that you may as well have avoided using them at all. What’s the point in sticking a name of an established character on a villain essentially of your own creation?

He's come a long way from The Deer Hunter, has our Christopher Walken...

The other approach is to play it in a ridiculously over-the-top fashion, winking at the audience as you do. The eighties film version of Flash Gordon gave us Max von Sydow as Ming the Merciless, complete with all the trappings. Grindhouse featured a fake trailer from Rob Zombie for Werewolf Women of the SS, which featured Nicolas Cage of all people as the good doctor. Even more recently, the less-than-superb Balls of Fury remained barely watchable for the sight of Christopher Walken in pure Asian garb, with platted ponytail. Somehow I can’t see a major summer tentpole opting for that approach. And it can offer its own dangers. To this day, the classic Doctor Who episode The Talons of Weng-Chiang is still the subject of controversy over its treatment of its Asian characters (the most major of which is played by a white man), in a serial clearly meant to play off the Victorian trope of yellow peril bad guys.

I noted in an article discussing whether an African-American could be cast as Captain America that a lot of these works really come from an age when this attitude was more socially acceptable. Were they being drafted from scratch now, these sorts of stories (in all media) would arguably be a lot more diverse and feature a lot less of the implicit racism. The reason, for example, that there are so many white superheroes is because most of them emerged before the Civil Rights era. I think we do need to be careful in just allowing these concepts to continue indefinitely just because they are “products of a different time”, but I also understand that respect is due to the original works (and that these images arguably can’t cause harm, given how aware we all are of their origins and the multi-cultural society we live in).  So, I’m not quite sure what (if anything) should be done.

In fairness, Favreau seems to have a very rough idea of what he has planned for his particular controversial character. The first Iron Man film used the character’s “ten rings” (the source of his power, or so I’m told) used to refer to the terrorist cell which captured Tony – apparently early drafts of the script featured the character as well. I’m sure that Favreau will figure out a way to transition the character from the comic books. It’s worth noting that, perhaps owing to his origins, the character has a tendancy to undergo a major redesign once every few years, as an attempt to find a way of modernising the character to bring him into step with the other Iron Man villains. Personally, I’ll just be a bit glad to see a villain who isn’t an armour-wearing psychopath, which seems to be (understandably) a motif which runs through the character’s rogues gallery.

It will be interesting to see how this plays out.

10 Responses

  1. Hopefully, it’s done tastefully but let’s face it, one way or another, the PC-police will always be there to complain even when it’s done in a harmless way. It’s nice to see The Mandarin finally getting into the picture as he is pretty much the closest thing to a worthy “foe” in the comic book.

    • Yep. He’s also the only one of Stark’s major adversaries who doesn’t play dress up in an armour suit. Really, Iron Man’s rogues gallery is a one trick pony (“we’ve got armour too!” and/or “we are corrupt arms dealers!”) and the Mandarin is the biggest exception. That whole “build a better Iron Man” plot was already tired the second time Favreau took it out of the box, so this would be a breath of fresh air.

  2. I kind of want the Mandarin in his full, racist glory for Iron Man 2. Just to see what happens.

    Great write-up, then.

    • Thanks.

      Given how militant certain comic book fans can get if you try to change their stuff (remember the argument over Mickey Rourke?), I think this is a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” area for the producers.

  3. I just want a villain that doesn’t dress up in armor. It’s about time Stark faces someone who isn’t just a copycat with iron man blueprints.

    • Amen on that. It really seems like most of his villains take that “thematic rogues gallery” thing a bit too seriously. I mean Spider-Man at least gets a good theme (animals) running through his, as does Batman (insanity – as much as that’s a theme). iron Man gets “wears a suit of armour”, which is kinda specific.

  4. “How do we deal with long term and iconic characters who may reflect concepts that we aren’t particularly comfortable with right now?”

    Make them interesting, or failing to do that, make them entertaining.

    Honestly I found it more racist that they turned the Mandarin into a joke in Iron Man 3 than if they played the character straight. For as problematic as he is, The Mandarin is Iron Man’s arch nemesis. He’s one of the few Iron Man villains who isn’t a businessman or wears an armored suit, has an interesting mystical motif that contrasts with Iron Man’s more technology, and was a genuinely cunning and dangerous adversary that challenged Stark various times.

    And they decided to handle him by basically strip him away of any dignity and turn him into a washed up actor. Which is stupid.

    • Of course, the comic book character is rooted in the same sort of orientalism that makes characters like Iron Fist or Doctor Strange problematic.

      And, ironically, writing around the character in Iron Man 3 is a great way to side step that controversy by making the Mandarin a propaganda construct within the narrative itself rather than simply inside the Marvel offices. Yes, I think writers like Matt Fraction have done good work with the character, but that’s playing off a pre-existing history in a way more direct than the movie adaptation can. I think turning the Mandarin into that larger-than-life propaganda construct plays off the character’s history in a way that is not tied to continuity but which reflects the heart of the character. Which is that he was a bad idea when he first appeared and he remains deeply problematic today.

      • Taking an Asian character, even a villain, and not only turning them white but also making said character into a washed up actor is always gonna be more racist than just playing the character straight. Even aside the race issue, I’m not convinced that there was no better way of handling the character than what they actually did.

        It’s the same kind of disrespectful bullshit that gave us “Cloud Galactus” in Fantastic Four Rise of the Silver Surfer. And if they were REALLY concerned with racism, they wouldn’t use the Mandarin at all and use a different villain instead. Or even better, just make the movie about Maria Hansen as the villain instead of Guy Pearce.

      • Ok, sorry about the outburst.

        I wasn’t really thinking about Matt Fraction’s Mandarin. I was more leaning towards Iron Man Armored Adventures version of the Mandarin. They completely revamped and changed the character around to such a degree he resembles more Darth Vader than he does the original… but I didn’t mind that too much mainly because it was an interesting direction they took with the character and made him into a genuine menace without going over the top with the Orientalism thing.

        So when I look at how Iron Man 3 handled the Mandarin, all I was was a wasted opportunity to see a different and interesting depiction of the Mandarin… and got something else instead.

        Guess I’m too much of a fan to understand some things.

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