So, like many of you (I assume), I was extremely worried and skeptical about the decision to make the Mandarin the villain of choice for the third installment of the Iron Man film franchise. I mean, really, there was nothing about the decision that seemed like a good idea, and I couldn’t imagine why anyone would choose the Mandarin even if they were dumb enough to not realize how horribly racist the character is. Texts from Superheroes summed the mess up pretty well, actually:
So, yeah, it was pretty clear to me going in that there was no way this wasn’t going to be achingly problematic. Except, (and maybe this is partially my super low expectations talking) I actually found the execution “let’s have a British guy play the Mandarin” to be really interesting and at least mildly nuanced.
[This is where spoilers start, guys]
When the movie opens, the Mandarin is already a fairly well established ‘villain’ of sorts, who has been responsible for a series of explosions around the world. He occasionally overrides the world’s media signals to send out messages, and to teach the good old US of A various ‘lessons,’ with the implication that he is building up to some much bigger display of power that will be a final lesson to the depravity of America.
His actions are actually remarkably low-key for an action movie villain, and his body count isn’t all that high. What’s more interesting is his portrayal: played by the actor Ben Kingsley, who is of mixed race (white and Pakistani). The character predictably uses a lot of stereotypical “ancient Chinese” aspects to his presentation, in the decor and dress he surrounds himself with in his broadcasts. And to top it all off, his speech patterns are identified by Tony Stark as those of a “Baptist preacher.”
In short, he is a pastiche, combining elements of threatening foreignness with aspects of certain stereotypes that even the most Lefty liberals might fear. As a villain, he is designed to represent something that will trigger irrational fears in as broad a swath of the American public as possible.
And of course, this is exactly the intent of the design of the character, even within the reality of the film itself. We eventually find out that the Mandarin is not responsible for the explosions for which he has taken credit – in fact, the man that we have seen on the television is an actor who was hired to divert attention away from what was actually happening: an American business man has been using the spectre of the Mandarin to cover up the results of his failed human experiments.
Which, I mean, it’s still a relatively shallow action film and all, (and it certainly is part and parcel of the Hollywood machine that insists on depicting versions of America that are easily 90% populated by white people), but I appreciated the nuance. And while I’m not totally sold on the execution (I don’t feel comfortable stating whether the ultimate portrayal of the Mandarin in this film is racist or not), it does seem clear to me that the people involved in devising the film were trying to do the right thing here, in a way that went beyond simply wanting to be ‘politically correct’ into actually wanting to engage with racial politics in America (even if only in a relatively simplistic way).
I don’t really know, though. What are your thoughts?