How Iron Man's Chief Villain Could Return
Avengers: Endgame may have closed off the first chapter of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but that doesn't mean all the narrative threads developed during Marvel Studios' first three phases of films have been tied up. During a Reddit AMA earlier this week, the typically coy Kevin Feige managed to drop a few gems about the MCU's past and future.
The most interesting of these tidbits was the Marvel Studios boss acknowledging that the story of the Mandarin isn't over just yet. Asked if there were any future plans for the Mandarin and his terrorist group the Ten Rings following his set up in Iron Man 3 (2013) and the Marvel One-Shot short film, All Hail the King (2014), Feige responded with one word: "Yes." It may not be much, but for someone who has become a master of dodging questions, that simple yes is enough to create anticipation. But with Iron Man's (Robert Downey Jr.) story completed, what place is there for his most recognizable comic book nemesis? And when the Mandarin does return in his true form, can his characterization avoid the xenophobia that has marred the character since his inception? The answer to the riddle of the Mandarin and the Ten Rings may lie with a MCU film currently in development.
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The version of the Mandarin who appeared in Shane Black's Iron Man 3 still proves to be a controversial point among fans. Washed up actor Trevor Slattery (Ben Kingsley) performed the role of the terrorist for propaganda videos, while a disgruntled colleague of Tony Stark's, Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce) ultimately claimed to be the real Mandarin, using terrorist tactics to drive up the supply and demand of his bio-weapons. But in the Marvel One-Shot All Hail the King, it's revealed that Killian only modeled his methods after the real Mandarin, one who is still very much alive and deeply unhappy with his namesake being co-opted. Despite how interesting it would have been to see the PTSD-addled Tony Stark face off against an adversary who has mastered alien technology, Killian does work as another dark parallel to Stark, like Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges) and Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell) before him, who values warmongering more than any aim toward the greater good. The effectiveness of Killian has grown on viewers over the years, but it's undeniable that the presence of a Mandarin closer to his comic book counterpart holds great appeal. Still, modernizing him is no easy task.
The Mandarin, created by Stan Lee and Don Heck, first appeared in Tales of Suspense No. 50 (1964). A product of his time, the Mandarin played off the modern American fears of the Communist-led China and the much older Western concerns of Yellow Peril. While the Mandarin was notable for his 10 rings, each possessing a different power, his appearance and manner reflected the Fu Manchu stereotype. Over the decades, different authors and artists have tried to put their own stamp on the Mandarin, some more reflective of the changing times, like Matt Fraction's reinvention, and some unfortunately dated. In response to the changes made to the character for Iron Man 3, Shane Black said he thought the Mandarin was a "racist stereotype." It's impossible to argue that the character hasn't been that at times, but he has also been more, and can be more still. There's a way for a Hollywood production to present a villain of Chinese heritage in a way that doesn't express xenophobia toward Asian-American audiences, and that starts with hiring Asian-American filmmakers to tell this story.
One of Marvel Studios' most exciting projects in the works is Shang-Chi, a film based around the Master of Kung Fu of the same name. In 2018, Chinese-America screenwriter Dave Callahan was hired to write the film. And in March, Destin Daniel Cretton, who is of Japanese descent, was hired to direct the film. Like Black Panther (2018), with it's black writing and directing team of Ryan Coogler and Joe Robert Cole, Shang-Chi is allowing it's central hero to be defined by those who share the greatest cultural and racial connections to him. So how does the Mandarin fit into this?
Shang-Chi is another character who, despite being created with the best of intentions (and a fair amount of Bruce Lee bandwagon jumping), has his own history mired by Yellow Peril. In the comics, Shang-Chi is the son of Fu Manchu, which yes, is about as basic as you can get in terms of making a character stick to a stereotype. Fu Manchu obviously wouldn't work for the film, and while modern comics have retconned this identity to be an alias for Zheng Zu, perhaps there's a better alternative. Shang-Chi is a character who isn't well-known to non-comic readers, and Callahan and Cretton have their work cut out from them in terms of presenting Shang-Chi's story as something more than another Americanized Kung-Fu film. Perhaps the way to bring a greater cultural sensitivity to the Mandarin and tie Shang-Chi, a character without many noteworthy adversaries, to the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe is to replace Fu Manchu/Zheng Zu with the Mandarin. With that switch, there's an interesting route to explore father/son dynamics and the divide between the culture of China and the culture of a second-generation Chinese-American who has spent his life surrounded by Western principals. Plus, as a member of the comics' Masters of Evil, he could lead a supervillain team to battle a new generation of Avengers.
For the most part, we've just accepted that supervillains when adapted to film are attached to the heroes they most commonly come up against in the comics. But with the Mandarin there's a chance to break that cycle. The Mandarin doesn't have to just be an Iron Man villain, a character forever tied to the success of a wealthy white hero who represents a specific American ideal. Whether it's through Shang-Chi, or another hero, the Mandarin can mean more, an antagonism just as inclusive as the MCU's heroism is on the path to be.
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