Debate of the Day: The Mandarin

the mandarin

It’s not very often I take to this column to debate one very specific plot point in a movie, but with everyone and their mother seeing Iron Man 3 over the past week or so, I figure it’s a topic that more than a few people might be curious to talk about.

I had an overall positive experience with Iron Man 3, and I can see how it can be called the best movie of the three (though I won’t say I enjoyed it more than The Avengers). But one aspect of the movie has troubled me during and since, and I figured I’d discuss it here. It’s how The Mandarin was handled.

Obvious spoilers follow, so it’s time to divert your eyes and ears.


In the comics, The Mandarin was a supremely powerful villain who drew his ability to conquer from power rings crafted by alien technology. With the Marvel Universe opening the door to aliens via Thor and The Avengers, they could have indeed used this origin story for the character, but I understand their decision not to do so.

They needed to keep the threat for Iron Man 3 somewhat local, like they have with the other films. With the existence of The Avengers, it had to be an issue that Tony Stark could handle by himself, or at least with the help of War Machine, without needing to call in Hulk, Thor and all the rest.

Enter the revamped Mandarin, portrayed as an Osama Bin Laden-ish terrorist who isn’t trying to conquer the world like the comic’s Mandarin, but is merely content to strike fear into the heart of the US with various targeting bombings and escalate the war on terror.


The trailer did a great job of convincingly showing this new angle of the Mandarin with a chilling voiceover from Ben Kingsley that Tony Stark accurately describes as “sounding like a baptist preacher.”

But something felt amiss for most of the movie. If he was meant to be this badass, scary villain, allegedly the best the series had seen so far, then where the hell was he? We only see him on propaganda videos edited together by a first year film student, and then once as he starts to shoot one at Aldrich Killian’s mansion, implying the two of them are in league together. For as awesome as The Mandarin looked ahead of time, it was weird to see him given such a minor role.

Those of us who have seen the film know the twist that comes next. The Mandarin isn’t real. Not really. He’s a drug addled actor paid by Killian to pretend to be The Mandarin, this figure responsible for bombings and presidential kidnappings. Killian was meant to be his henchman, but in reality, he was really the man behind the curtain. His goal was to escalate the war on terror to the point where superpowers and terrorists alike would be bidding on his genetically modified supersoldiers, and he even managed to have his own sleeper (almost) in the White House. It also bothered me that the Vice President would sell out his entire country for a new leg for his granddaughter, but that’s a plot point debate for another time, I suppose.


Rather, the reveal that The Mandarin was essentially…a goofier version of real-life Ben Kingsley was the biggest laugh moment in the film and a plot turn that no one was expecting, but it somehow just didn’t sit right with me. I understand that it’s funny. I understand that it makes the larger plot more interesting. But I really wish we could have see the Mandarin as an ACTUAL villain.

Kingsley’s adaptation of the character was so interesting, it almost felt like a shame that it was all just a sham. Even ahead of time, I credited Iron Man 3 for having a seemingly strong villain, taking a lesson from the last two Dark Knight movies which did the same thing.

I suppose this is what separates the Iron Man movies from the Batman movies. They were willing to completely sacrifice a cool villain for the sake of a big laugh and an odd plot twist. I still can’t figure out if that was a good move or a bad one.

It’s not that I disliked Iron Man 3 or even hated the plot development, but part of me was just a little bit disappointed we didn’t get to see a full-on version of Mandarin, especially when such a talented actor was playing him.

What do you think?

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  1. It was great, it was so meta. Kingsley either does badass Oscar nominated roles/awesome movies or shows up randomly in trash to collect a paycheck (Prince of Persia, Bloodrayne, A Sound of Thunder).

    So here he showed up in an awesome movie to play a cheap actor who shows up to collect a paycheck as an over the top villain.

    My hat is off to you sir.

  2. I liked it. There was never going to be a way to do the Mandarin properly that would please fans/not be the racist stereotype from the comics. Doing it this way allowed for two villians to effectively be included (thus avoiding the Spiderman 3 problem), while also allowing more depth to be explored with Killian’s character.
    I like that it played around with convention a little bit more and didn’t just go for the more traditional tropes of ‘scary terrorist with unknown motives’ that Batman fell into by TDKR.
    Iron Man 3 was never going to be Avengers (as I’ve said previously), but I thought this was a really good entry into the series and handled the material well.

  3. This was a genius move on their part.

    The problem with the Mandarin is that he is caricature. That would not fly. If they didn’t make him a caricature then it would not be true enough to the character.

    Plus alien power rings remind people of Green Lantern, which didn’t exactly fly over too well with people.

    So what they did was brilliant; they used the character in a completely different way.

  4. Imagine if Nolan did this with the Joker. All he does is appear in those badass videos, blows ups shit, and robs banks. But in the end, it turns out Joker was just some dope and Black Mask really ran everything. Mandarin had the potential to be Tony’s greatest adversary, much like the Joker is to Batman. Still thought Ironman was great though.

  5. There is a fantastic way of doing Mandarin onscreen. Excuse my use of wikipedia clippings, but this is essentially the story they could have used:

    Background:The Mandarin is revived in a subsequent Iron Man story arc, in which he is revealed to have been in a prison in central China for some time. In is revealed that he has lost his hands (most likely the hands that were sent to Temugin were, in fact, actually the Mandarin’s), and that he has been living with no food or water for years, and ability that is likely due to his mastery of chi. Despite being handless and starved, he is able to kill several men armed with guns via his mastery of the martial arts. His rings have been returned to him, and are reassimilated into his body by heating them and burning them into his spine.

    After attacking Iron Man, via S.H.I.E.L.D. – with dozens of unwitting proxies in the form of extremist splinter groups, equipped by him with hyper-advanced biological weapons – he eventually resurfaces as Tem Borjigin (yet another name of Genghis Khan), now employing artificial hands

    The Mandarin infiltrates the U.S. government via his role as CEO of Prometheus, a corporation specializing in bio-engineered weaponry. He appears to be using Tony Stark’s former love interest Maya Hansen to produce an army of soldiers enhanced with Extremis, an artificial biotech virus created by Hansen that when introduced into a subject with a specific gene receptive to it (which only 2.5% of the population possess), grants that subject a super-boosted immune system and a greatly enhanced healing ability that can spontaneously generate new, improved organs, but which increases aggression and kills anyone injected with it who lacks the gene for it. Mandarin is also financing and arming terrorists around the globe, and plans to unleash the Extremis virus on the public, expecting the 97.5% fatality ratio to cause a mass catastrophe of deaths. The Mandarin admits to Hansen that even he will die in the outbreak, but she and those with the gene to survive will become free from disease and effectively immortal. Though he has his Extremis disabled, Iron Man defeats the Mandarin while wearing the Silver Centurion armor by tearing five of the rings out of the Mandarin’s spine, blasting him with those rings, his unibeam, and repulsors at the same time, and then freezing him as he is engulfed in deadly concentrated Extremis virus. Iron Man then prevents the Extremis outbreak.

    Take out the robotic hands (movies don’t have the plot point of the Mandarin’s son anyway) and you could imagine this as the Techno-thriller we were promised. I still loved the movie. I did want more of an espionage type deal.

  6. I know that all of us comic book fans love to have our superhero and comic movies cater to us, but honestly, if you didn’t know who the Mandarin was before, would it really even matter? In the terms of the movie, I thought it worked quite well.

    I can see if they made him a major villain and changed his origin to being struck by a wayward alien beam or something wacky. Sure, I’d have a gripe then. In this case though, I quite liked the change. It eschewed the usual “bad guy” formula from comic book movies, and as a hard core comic book fan, I didn’t see it coming and got a good surprise.

  7. It was a very clever and well-done twist,but the downside is that Aldrich Killian is not a very good villain. Guy Pearce does bring some charisma to the role,but the part is a bit forgettable. Which makes me wish they just did a badass Mandarin,so that Iron Man finally has a good villain onscreen.

    That said,it didn’t ruin the movie for me as it did to a lot of fanboys. I still loved it.

  8. From a political standpoint, it was kind of brilliant because it really is that easy to fool people nowadays. Anything they see on tv they believe, so long as they call it news, and that is a very dangerous thing. However, the decision was an unsatisfying narrative disaster that left not only the film, but the entire trilogy without a real supervillain/nemesis.

    Basically, all of Stark’s nemeses are just business rivals using technology against him. Whiplash was the closest thing we got to a legit comic supervillain, and he wasn’t even the primary antagonist in that film, just the coolest. My favorite thing about the movie was Mandarin’s videos because of the the anticipation of a legit badass for Iron Man to deal with rather than just a other evil dork. Pulling that out from under the audience was a solid artistic move, but I would have much rather the went traditional and given us what we had been anticipating. It would have been way cooler and more satisfying than a bunch of glowy dudes and super-Pepper.

  9. I loved the twist. Since you brought up Batman, I actually focused more on the Mandarin as a symbol much like the Bat. That’s all he is and that makes him an even larger than life threat. He’s meant to symbolize any possible threat that America has ever experienced. In effect, anybody can fit into his shoes and role. It’s a greater commentary on terrorism. You can also make the case that terrorists (Mandarin) are a milder threat as compared to venture capitalists (Killian), but that’s a whole ‘nother can of worms.

  10. I never read Iron Man growing up, so I had no preconceived notion of who The Mandarin was. Once I read that he was essentially a racist Asian stereotype I saw the brilliance of the choice. And I thought the way it was handled in the film was terrific. Screw fanboys- they complain about everything.

  11. I completely agree with Mr. Tassi on this. I was so hyped to see the Mandarin as the main villain, for no other reason than the fact that Mandarin is one of Iron Man’s main foes. And to have Ben Kingsley playing him would have been superb. I had high hopes for this movie and that angle in particular. I agree the twist was funny and Kingsley pulled it off very well, but I was really hoping for a ring-wielding, magic-slinging bad-ass to counter Tony Stark’s seemingly limitless tech.

  12. I liked the move. and while it may be untrue to the comic book, comparing the Mandarin to the Joker doesnt really fit, the mandarin is a caricature while the joker is timeless. and they can still bring him back by having the rings come into play and then having Kingsley go “hey i should do this full time so people take me seriously” and then bam! bad ass villain we all want with some interesting character development true good movies, and good bad guys, need(unless they are bat shit crazy and already interesting like the joker).

  13. I have a lot of thoughts on this, but I’ll try to limit myself for the time being. I will say that it’s a legitimate question to ask; as any deviation from continuity of this magnitude deserves some attention. But I will ultimately be disagreeing with you for a few reasons, not least of which is…

    One, I’m simply glad that Marvel has the balls to let people screw with continuity in their movies from time to time. With as many movies as they have coming out, I can only feel that slavishly hewing to the storylines and details written in the comic world would handicap the movies’ ability to become their own thing.

    Two, I find it strange to consider the Mandarin as a particularly interesting villain as rendered in the trailers. The most interesting pre-twist aspect to the character was the whole “manipulation of western iconography” thing. He’s a guy who doesn’t seem to come from anywhere; who seems to be exploiting our worst fears. How any of these interesting keystones are cheapened by the twist escapes me; if anything the pageantry of the character is a natural and fascinating way to play those notes.

    Three, it seems reductive to list the only effects of the twist as “a laugh and a twist.” It plays thematically at least; as everybody in the movie is hiding behind one mask or another. It also plays on a social commentary/satire level for me, though I might save those observations for another time.

  14. It totally sucks, is like the Joker turns to be a junkie stand up comedian. Mandarin is the main villain in Iron Man mythology… so no happy with that twist, that ruined the movie for me; that is my personal take on this…

  15. When Tony is interrogating the Mandarin and he’s like “I’m just a crazy actor / drug addict” I was on the edge of my seat waiting for the other shoe to drop. I was waiting for him to stop the ruse and start fighting Tony. It never happened and that was brilliant BECAUSE it wasn’t what every comic book reader in the room was expecting. It’s wonderful to be caught off guard when you have encyclopedic knowledge of the background to something. It was fresh and well done. As someone stated earlier…Madarin is just too jingoistic to work at this day in age.

  16. I get that the original character was a racist caricature but you can update the character without totally ruining it. I would have accepted the way he was portrayed as an international terrorist like in the commercials. He didnt need to have magic rings like in the comics but he should have been Iron Mans greatest villain. Joker didnt fall into a vat of chemicals in TDK but the core character was still there. Here they just made the Mandarin a joke.

  17. Here’s what I’ve been thinking about:

    1. the mandarin’s symbol was never explained. we all know about the ten rings, but it’s never broached in the movie.

    2. it was a little too easy for Stark to get to “The Mandarin.” I honestly think Stark was intended to find out about the ruse.

    3. Why did Aldrich and what’s her face still call him “The Master” even when no one else was around? This kind of hints that there’s more here than we’re really seeing.

    So in my opinion I think that there might be more to the mandarin than we’re being shown. It might be explored more in Iron Man 4 (if they make one) or Avengers 2, or something else.

  18. My issue is Magic, as much as its seen in Avengers with Thor and such, doesn’t really belong in the Iron Man universe that they have created on screen. Its all about intelligence and technology. As much as the fan boys will piss and moan about Mandarin being ruined, it would have seemed out of place to have a true to comic version of him on screen. If we think back, was there ever a comic to movie adaptation that made people happy? No, there are some pretty close ones, but never one that unanimously was praised by fan boys. So really; what we got for Iron Man 3 was actually pretty fantastic when it comes down to it.

  19. I wholeheartedly agree…

    The twist was atrocious, for a film already full of laughs, there needed to be a legitimately scary villain…Killian wasn’t it, because of his nerdy backstory.

    The trailer portrayed a film that we did not receive, Tony was never subjected to any lessons by The Mandarin, nor was he forced to make the choice of a “meaningful death.” Pepper was NEVER at the risk of danger…even in the final showdown everyone knew she’d survive the fall because we just saw her injected with Extremis.

    Kingsley had the look and sound down pact to make The Mandarin an even better villain than (drumroll) BANE! Yes, I said it, I went there…The Mandarin was on par to out-villain Bane…and the writers totally muffed it!

    IM3 didn’t need a plot twist, it wasn’t that kind of franchise, Iron Man 3 needed a head-to-head battle with a really intimidating villain.

  20. why is nobody talking abiut the disapoining change in AIM?
    no modok?
    no beekeepers?
    now theyre just super-powered thugs?
    they were supposed to be brilliant people just like stark but without his morals.

  21. For me, The Mandarin affair was the best move in the whole film (which I rate 6/10 because there were A LOT of plot points that bothered me more). It was geniunely unexpected, smart and extremely ballsy for a summer blockbuster.

    First of all, the character was impossible to properly update. The superpowered, caricature Mandarin from the comics is too wacky for this series, but at the same time he’s not Lex Luthor either, so he couldn’t just be effectively revamped as some sort of terrorist leader or CEO conspirator. It would’ve been boring and not beliveable. I don’t get the Joker comparisons, since a) Vat of chemicals or not, the Joker doesn’t have any superpowers and b) Even if the Joker was an exaggerated character, he did fit in the world of crime of the Batman movies. The Mandarin without superpowes would be both uninteresting and a ridiculous non-threat to Iron Man; and with superpowers, he would’ve been just too much.

    So they turned him into a message: You want to think that you know how evil looks like, but in reality most of the world’s worst problems can be traced back to smart, greedy humans pulling strings. It’s simple and true. And it was played for somewhat big laughs at an appropriate point of the movie, so I’d say it completely works.

    Too bad the Aldrich Killian character didn’t gel and that all sense of dread was lost when Tony’s UAV/drone army appeared out of nowhere. The brilliant twist lost all meaning and the movie went into toy-selling mode.

  22. Being a comic book fan I can understand why the ‘purists’ might be upset. At the same time though I get why they did what they did with the Mandarin and for the story they were telling, it fit.

  23. I hated it. To me, it was the worst of the Iron Man movies. A lot of people loved the last battle, but to me it was a giant toy commercial. Look at all the Iron Man suits! Collect them all!

    I will say this though; with the fire breathing and the dragon tattoos, I sorta got the feeling that Pierce was trying to channel a bit of Fing Fang Foom.

  24. I kind of agree with David. Maybe it was all a show for some future Iron Man or marvel movie. Think about it, why would Killian and ‘the girl Tony dumped after one night’ call him Master and not look at his face, what about the other guy what he killed on TV in front of the president, was it another actor, did he actually kill him, was it acted or what’s the deal? I still remember his words ‘You will never see me coming’, and i hope we will as the real Mandarin, who played an drugged actor who played Mandarin if you get what i mean.

  25. I think the “real” Mandarin could turn up at some point in the Marvel movie universe, as there was little bits in Iron Man 3 which suggest there is someone out there who is the real mandarin.

    Specifically, he mentions having had to have undergone plastic surgery to look like the Mandarin, yes this could just be surgery to make him more believable/menacing, but could also be having the surgery to look like someone who already exists.

    I liked the plot twist either way and the movie was good

  26. It was a bad move and essentially flipping off any real big comic fans. I think they had a perfect opportunity to progress the alien technology that Stark will surely have to contend with again. They could have easily threw out a line or two as to why he had to handle it himself and could have added a few cool cameos in the process.

  27. You should all know why the Mandarin was REALLY changed. He was changed to kowtow to Chinese audiences. If you’re saying it was original, it wasn’t, BATMAN BEGINS already did it with Ra’s al Ghul. If you’re saying it’s awesome they surprised us with a twist, you’re wrong, because a twist isn’t automatically awesome guys. In fact, a twist is only good once, and never again upon repeat viewings, except for the extremely rare occurrence when you can go back and see what you missed, like in The Sixth Sense, but there are no clues in IM3. If you’re saying we have to respect the filmmakers for making such a bold decision, you’re wrong, because we would’ve all been just as surprised if Tony Start had turned out to secretly be Thor…and all of you would’ve hated that. Bold decisions don’t necessarily a good move make. If you’re saying Mandarin was a racist caricacature that needed changing, you’re wrong, he might’ve been 50 years ago, but he hasn’t been like that in 40 years, and besides, Red Skull is the epitome of “red scare” carictures and he wasn’t changed for CAPTAIN AMERICA. If you’re saying that the Mandarin is a relativley unknown villain and therefore could be messed with, well, Loki was an unknown too, but now you guys are fawning all over Tom Hiddleston. If you’re saying that I have to respect Kingsley’s performance…you’re actually RIGHT about that, but Kingsley’s performance belonged more in TROPIC THUNDER 2, and you know it well.

    Face it, Mandarin was changed to kowtow to Chinese audiences, who can’t tolerate seeing a bad guy portrayed facing off against American. China has over a billion of the world’s population, and China only allows 35 American movies a year into its country, and in order to guarantee your movie is one of those selected, you have to do two things: first, make your movie in conjunction with one of THEIR companies, which Disney did with a Chinese company called DMG, and you have to let them give you script approval.

    This is sad, considering it’s an American superhero, created by an American writer, published by an American publisher (Marvel), with a primarily American cast. Disney made these changes to bow to the Chinese and gave us B.S. excuses like “he’s a racist caricature” so that we’d feel too frightened by political correctness to disagree, so that fanboys would be on board and wouldn’t give the film negative word-of-mouth.

    In short, Mandarin was changed to give the Chinese what they wanted, and the film’s marketing strategy was to ensure fanboys didn’t know enough ahead of time to start complaining to their friends, which, while they money would’ve still made tons of money, COULD have had the effect of diminishing it’s super-massive opening weekend haul.

    It’s all politics, money, and smoke and mirrors guys.

  28. I really enjoyed this particular plot twist. If i may however, i believe they should have taken it one step further in revealing Kingsley was in fact the main antagonist the entire time. Playing both sides to ferment chaos.
    you could go any route with that.

  29. No. No. Not now, not EVER. The ACTUAL Mandarin character was, is, and always will be a horrible racist creation. He is a HORRIBLE character. I’m sick to fucking death of all the whiny WHITE fanboys crying about how they screwed up the Mandarin. When the ACTUAL Mandarin would have RUINED this movie with bad press. The ACTUAL, “me chinee supahvillain, here your wontom soup missah Stahk” Mandarin CANNOT have been done on the big screen as id without being absolutely horrible and pissing off people who make up a third of the goddamn planet. Get your damn white privilege in check, stop whining that they didn’t use the horrible racist caricature, and be HAPPY they found a funny and brilliant way to deconstruct him.

    Goddamn clueless white people EVERY FUCKING TIME I swear…

  30. I completely agree. I thought the voice was a cool take on it and that Killian was a supporter, someone that Don Cheadle would end up beating up. I also had really high hopes when I heard that the Mandarin would be the villain. I guess it was a move so that we could not predict the whole movie but Nolan would never have treated a big villain and a great actor in Ben Kingsley with such disrespect. Kingsley did it for the paycheck.

  31. Guess I’m not following why a lot of people think that if they made the Mandarin the main bad guy he would have to be like the caracture of a character (or racist version). His character could have been changed and still be an evil ultimate bad guy (Look at Bane – and gee Bane was a twist because he wasn’t the guy pulling the strings either). People make it sound like he has to have 10 rings and eat fortune cookies. No. You could make him a smart villian (Probably even ahead of Tony thinking) etc.

    The problem I have is that in all 3 Iron Man movies – Tony never really had a strong villian to fight again. Stane? That battle was so short and Tony was almost out of power. Never got to see what Iron man could do. Whiplash? Tier 2 (maybe) villian. Really not much there. Now Killian – while had the charm just didn’t get that feel. Sure he shot someone in the head out of anger but still. Tony never had to go toe to toe tech wise against anyone (Which is what Iron Man is). In IM3 the suits might as well have been tin foil for how well they held up.

    I agreed with someone about all the ‘drones’ showing up. I hated the Pepper parts (All of them). Exetrmis was a great arc in the comics. Here it felt thrown away.

    I guess I’m old because I would like to see Iron Man lose a battle than go back and make a better suit (Heat resist, new perks, etc).

  32. I didn’t care for the twist at first be causing how incredibly menacing Kingsley made him seem…but then I started to get it…he’s Osama bin laden.

    A massively feared terrorist who, when finally found, turns out to be a pathetic wastrel surrounded by squaller who’s only real power is to put out menacing videos.

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