Iron Man 3′s Mandarin Problem

September 27, 2012

When I get things wrong, I’m not averse to a public mea culpa. It’s the only way I can justify patting myself on the back when I get something right. Well, I have to admit that I was off my game when I wrote this back in April:

Even non-geeks are talking about the fact that Iron Man 3 will be a Sino-foreign co-production that will be partially filmed here in the PRC. This is great news, but I worry that Disney won’t really have the right folks on the ground here to properly localize this flick. Some commentators are already passing around dangerous and unsubstantiated rumors about the possibility that Marvel villain The Mandarin might play a prominent role in the movie due to the China connection.

Obviously this is an insane suggestion, as those in the know have already pointed out. Let’s stick with reality here. A Chinese villain? I don’t think so.

My logic was flawless, in my opinion, but that doesn’t always matter when you’re dealing with creative folks. Everyone knows that you can’t have a foreignish film like Iron Man 3 with a Chinese villain; the script would never get through censorship review, right?

I was therefore surprised when the rumors circulated that Ben Kingsley, who is his generation’s Charles Bronson in terms of playing a broad range of ethnic characters, would be joining the cast as The Mandarin. Hard to believe. Why would China’s State Administration of Radio, Film and Television (SARFT) approve a high-profile flick with a British national playing the role of a diabolical Chinese super-villain? I had no explanation and could only speculate that perhaps DMG Entertainment’s Dan Mintz has secret photos of SARFT officials caught in flagrante with farm animals, thereby greatly reducing government approval angst.

Aside from the China problem, Iron Man director Shane Black was on the record as referring to The Mandarin as a “racist caricature.” Nevertheless, by May of this year, the decision had been made and filming had already begun. At the time, one rumor suggested that perhaps The Mandarin would only be a minor villain:

[The Mandarin] won’t be the primary antagonist. Instead Guy Pearce’s geneticist Aldrich Killian will be the primary villain, with The Mandarin serving as his “silent partner.”

I wonder how silent a silent partner villain needs to be before SARFT signs off? The whole thing still sounded to me like a huge risk, considering what is at stake with the Chinese market.

An alternative theory (don’t you love this stuff?) involved a second, good guy Chinese character, played by Andy Lau:

Andy Lau’s character will be an OLD FRIEND OF TONY STARK’S that represents China’s technology sector – and will use China’s armored heroes to HELP Iron Man defeat “The Mandarin” who is seen as a terrorist against both the US and China.

Neonpunch goes on to report that Kingsley could be playing the leader of “a group called The Mandarin” who are the masterminds behind a global chain of events that set off a war of Iron Men.

Ah, so the “good Chinese” offsets the “bad Chinese”? Well, that rumor died after Andy Lau decided to pass on the film. Too bad, the idea of China’s “technology sector” coming to the rescue is fabulous. Talk about moving up the value chain!

At the same time, other rumors suggested that Kingsley may have joined the cast not as The Mandarin, but as another bad guy. Latino Review, which has been hitting the Iron Man 3 rumors hard this year, had this to say in late April:

So, it’s time to ask the question: is the Mandarin the villain of Iron Man 3? Disney/Marvel came right out of the gate confirming Latino Review’s Extremis tip then immediately saying “no Mandarin.”

That lead BadAss Digest to do the best fan conjecture I’ve read about Ben Kingsley’s villain where they suggest he’s going to be part of another Marvel super-corporation Roxxon (since Stark Industries is obviously involved and Justin Hammer got wasted in Iron Man 2, there’s really only one super-corporation left in the comics universe).

So maybe no Mandarin at all?

But it doesn’t end there. The latest rumor, again attributed to Latino Review, is that an evil organization called “The Ten Rings” will play a prominent role in the movie, and as we all know:

[T]he group of terrorists who captured Tony Stark in the first film were associated somehow with “The Ten Rings,” a wink to comics fans who know that one of Iron Man’s most famous opponents, The Mandarin, had ten magical rings he’d wear that would give him powers. It the Iron Man film universe, The Ten Rings seems to be the name of a terrorist organization.

Hmm. The plot thickens. So maybe Kingsley’s The Mandarin is a secondary character (who could be excised from a China version?), the main bad guy is Guy Pearce, and the evil organization might be renamed The Ten Rings”?

Heaven knows if that is anywhere close to what this movie is going to look like when it’s finally in the can, but I can at least see how that story could be given to SARFT for approval.

And Iron Man 3 really should avoid a Mandarin problem and keep a low profile. Why? As I wrote in an earlier post today, SARFT is on the lookout for questionable Sino-foreign co-productions, and if the reporting on all this is true, Iron Man 3 sounds a bit dicey to me, with a limited China tie-in to the main storyline and a lack of Chinese talent.

And this certainly doesn’t make the flick sound like a bona fide co-production at all:

The third movie in the Iron Man superhero series was given a partially Chinese theme and structured as a Chinese-US co-venture to maximise its commercial chances in the world’s fastest-growing film market.

But at last weekend’s Comic-Con convention in San Diego, US, it emerged that the film’s China shoot will be tokenistic.

The film’s director Shane BLACK addressed fans and media at Comic-Con and said that neither he nor the cast expect to travel to China. He revealed that a crew will be sent to China to film plate shots, which can later frame ‘green screen’ sequences shot in the US.

“I assume that when the plates crew goes over to China to film the plates while I’m standing by my swimming pool, that it will go really well,” he said at the event. “I’ll probably go to China for the premiere,” said Black in another Comic-Con interview.

Black was also quoted in the New York Times as saying: “Basically we’re setting aspects of the film in China,” Mr. Black said, “but we won’t be filming in China.” Nice obfuscation. Sounds like a lawyer drafted that statement for him.

Ouch. I hope SARFT, which has yet to approve the co-production, doesn’t read the trades or the New York Times.

For the record, Disney/Marvel has pushed back, saying that once an approval is secured, they plan to shoot scenes over here at some point. DMG’s Dan Mintz has also said that the rumors flying around about Iron Man 3′s production plan are untrue. So when the director was talking about his shooting schedule, he had no idea what he was talking about?

Yeah, I buy that. Do you?

I’m really looking forward to this movie now. God knows what it’s actually going to look like, but I have a feeling that the U.S. and China versions might end up being a tad bit different.

3 thoughts on “Iron Man 3′s Mandarin Problem

  1. Hogzilla

    I have an easy solution.

    Get a Korean/Japanese to cast as The Mandarin. The Korean/Japanese will be the bad guy (I refrain from using the word “villain”) and The Mandarin is just a character, with some character flaw. Perfect for the Chinese Ah Q.

  2. Chris Devonshire-Ellis

    For the uninitiated, Ben Kingsley is a British Indian, classically trained actor much beloved of the British and best known for his Oscar winning role as Gandhi in the film of the same name. Charles Bronson he ain’t. Concerning Hollywood and Chinese film revenues, why should they care? It’s the same old China story, huge market, knock down ticket prices and the Chinese (SOE) distributor gets to keep, after “charges”, the restrictive practices of film distribution in China about 79% of the revenues. Then, the foreign investor, if there is any money left over, has to pay 25% CIT plus another 10% in dividend tax to get the money out of the country.
    Under which circumstances, the lack of cultural empathy or Mandarin in “Iron Man 3″ makes sense, because Hollywood essentially, knows that it earns zilch from China and couldn’t, in the words of the Silver Surfer, give a flying f*ck about Chinese sensibilities.
    Perhaps when China in the global film industry, starts to open up and either pay for product placements or allow foreign films and their owners to actually make a buck, things will change. But until that day arrives, you can be sure that Chinese baddies will continue to be portrayed as bogeymen in foreign films. Goodness and salvation, as Batman, Fried Green Tomatos and Pay It Forward have aptly demonstrated, needs to be paid for in Hollywoodland.

  3. lee

    I actually dont’ care in the least. They can show a evil Chinese villain without being racist, just do it tastefully and realistically.