Some thoughts on Iron Man 3 and the Mandarin (spoilers)

Ben Kingsley as the Mandarin in 2013 superhero blockbuster Iron Man 3

The box office juggernaut that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe is currently blasting through cinemas once again with Iron Man 3. Returning to the role of Tony Stark, Robert Downey Jr fires on every last one of his not inconsiderable charisma cylinders to produce a performance of genius eccentricity.

In the other corner for this particular movie was someone very special – The Mandarin. Those familiar with the Iron Man comic books will know that the Mandarin is to Iron Man what the Joker is to Batman and Lex Luthor is to Superman. He’s very important.

Director Shane Black was always going to have to do something special to make this character work on film, but what he did was truly awful.

Note: There are MASSIVE SPOILERS after the jump. DO NOT read any further unless you have seen Iron Man 3. Seriously. It will ruin the film.

Shane Black’s vision for Iron Man 3  was heavily influenced by his back catalogue and his history in wisecracking buddy cop movies like the Lethal Weapon franchise. One of my main problems with Iron Man 3 was that almost everything was played for laughs. The character of the Mandarin was no exception.

Around halfway through Iron Man 3, it is revealed that Ben Kingsley’s terrifying madman is in fact merely an actor. His evil is a fabrication created by the true Mandarin, Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce), for some reason or another. Like so many events in Iron Man 3, Shane Black took something serious and turned it into nothing more than a cheap gag.

It’s understandable that the Mandarin as seen in the comics could not be a 21st century movie character. He is a ludicrously racist caricature that would not play well on screen. When the Mandarin was announced, comic book fans were worried. However, trailers  for Iron Man 3 soon arrived featuring Ben Kingsley’s genuinely intriguing take on the role and we were back in business.

To have that all ruined just for a giggle is very disappointing. The message about media portrayal of terrorism was interesting, but it comes at the expense of one of the most iconic villains in the entire Marvel universe. Can you imagine the outcry if Heath Ledger had played the Joker as a plasterer from Yeovil?

Of course, the internet thinks this is all great fun. Blogs have gleefully sounded off about how we were all “punked” by  the twist and lauded the Mandarin as the greatest villain in the history of comic book movies. It’s impossible to deny that the reveal was a huge shock. However, that does not mean it was good. If the Harry Potter franchise had ended with Voldemort peeling off his face to reveal that he was in fact a clone of Dumbledore, that would’ve been a massive shock. But it would also have been terrible. So was this.

Comparisons have been made between the Iron Man 3 twist and the reinvention of Ra’s al Ghul in Batman Begins. The difference is simple. The reinvention of Ra’s al Ghul helped the story to fit into a more modern scene and solved a number of problems around the character. Alternatively, Shane Black’s iteration of the Mandarin works solely to generate laughs and, ultimately, doesn’t actually make a lot of sense – as has been pointed out elsewhere.

As much as Shane Black is a witty writer and a very competent film maker, he was completely wrong for Iron Man 3. His version of the Mandarin turned a great character into a pathetic, cheap joke.

At least he was right in the trailer: we never saw him coming.

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