posted a BLOG item about 1 month ago
First of all: SPOILER ALERT. SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS FOR IRON MAN 3!!!! OH MY GOD GET OUT OF THE WAY AND AVOID THESE SPOILERS IF YOU HAVEN'T SEEN THE MOVIE SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Second of all, I'm not a purist or expert on the Iron Man comics so I can't really claim to know all that much about the character The Mandarin, though I've heard good things.
With that in mind, I thought the portrayal of The Mandarin in Iron Man 3 was handled poorly. When we're first introduced to him in the movie, we only see him on television screens, he gives these ominous speeches and we see Al-Queda-training-video-like montages and we get sense, and the message, loud and clear: this guy is a threat. He's vaguely Middle Eastern, though he could be European. I liked how they kept his race fairly ambiguous, since, as you may know, the original character was Oriental, complete with the Fu Manchu visage, and not exactly subtle in any way. If there had been any concern about appearing racially insensitive then I think they solved the problem with The Mandarin's racial ambiguity, though unmistakeably we are meant to draw comparisons to Osama Bin Laden.
But enough beating around the bush. I'm sure you know the twist. He's not really this evil terrorist leader but in fact a drug-addicted failed actor named Trevor hired by the REAL villain, Aldrich Killian, who is an American. He can barely stay awake mid-conversation and you should see the goddamn mess he leaves in the bathroom. Okay. Well, THAT WAS SURPRISING. But what a rotten trick they pulled, what a silly bait and switch. Such an earnest build-up to the character, and what tangled webs are woven amidst a plot involving suicide bombings on U.S. soil and secret projects to alter human DNA and threats against the president all to arrive at....a rimshot.
I think Ben Kingsley is possibly our greatest actor. That they'd reduce his role to a punchline, when he's capable of so much more, is just a sad, sad waste. He does his job marvelously, he perfectly illustrates what a great actor can do: he wears the Greek masks of tragedy and comedy in two different modes as the threatening figure and the fool behind him. There's no risk of going over the top as The Mandarin because one could argue that's the point. There's no risk of not being taken seriously as Trevor because, most definitely, that's the point. I see Kingsley here in a wonderful performance, effortlessly exercising his talent. He probably had a lot of fun.
Instead of doing something interesting with the character, they do something unexpected. It's not the same thing. They chew him up and they spit him out. When a character no longer becomes a character, but a mere plot device, I feel cheated. When promises of an antagonist that's at least a little different and sort of eccentric and enigmatic is traded for a generic, dull, assembly-line baddy like Killian, I feel immensely let down. Now, really, credit where credit's due, Guy Pearce is an acceptable villain. But would you place him in your top 10 villains ever? Honestly? I don't think you would. But, hey now, not every villain can be the best villain ever, right? Well, for fuck's sake, isn't that the point? Shouldn't they be aiming for that? If this is the final epic Iron Man movie (WINK WINK) shouldn't it end on a really damn great villain? Isn't that something, if they had actually tried, if they had actually put some effort into it and took REAL risks instead of just playing cheap tricks, achieved with The Mandarin?
People keep saying how clever the twist is. Is it really, though? Just because they got away with it without us oh-so-resourceful internet geeks finding out first? People say it's a ballsy move, because it plays against our expectations from what we'd see in a comic book movie. I guess it does, but at what cost, really? I could at least be on board with that if they at least had the conviction to remain committed once they reveal the deceit. But they throw the character away once he serves his purpose and he's tossed aside. Why? Because his only purpose was to serve as the Red Herring, and that's it. Yes, I was surprised. Yes, Ben Kingsely is hilarious, but that's besides the point. What if he were an actual character instead of a plot device? And I don't mean The Mandarin persona, I mean Trevor. What if he actually had some weight one way or another with the plot, what if he were needed? I mean, they find out his secret and that's it? Does Killian not need him anymore? Did I miss some throw-away line of dialogue where Killian scoffs, "so what if you found out? the plan is going perfectly, we're beyond all that now! Muahahahah!" or something like that? Is the kidnapping of the president of the United States and his display in the Iron Patriot suit set up specifically for Tony's viewing pleasure? Like, don't you think with this evil plot of fear-mongering Killian may want to set up a camera or two to show the president in jeopardy? Wouldn't it have been interesting if Trevor were necessary, needed to "perform" once more for that but fell under "performance anxiety" when on camera for the big event, once he knows the danger is all too real? Anyone else find it curious that there isn't a single scene with Killian and Trevor together (aside from a brief cut-away flashback)? Wouldn't it have been interesting to see them actually interact? If the movie had a humanizing moment between these two characters? What if they slowed down the speeding train of a plot for just one moment and had a scene like that? But he's a disposable plot device. The Mandarin is revealed to be an actor though it would have made no difference, other than maybe losing a few good laughs, if he were actually a computer program or a robot.
I don't know. It's just frustrating. We've seen Ben Kingsley in such great roles, like the legendary Gandhi, the urgent and combative nature of an immigrant trying to protect his family in House of Sand and Fog, the foaming-at-the-mouth, unpredictable bulldog of a human being gangster in Sexy Beast. Given the chance he can do anything, and make any character work. They wasted him on what's basically a joke. It's an effective one, I'll give it that. It works on the very principal levels of intended response. But I'm not patting them on the back for this one. I don't think it's especially clever or ballsy. I don't think it amounts to saying much about how we're fed propaganda and how it turned racial stereotyping and expectations of "We automatically see the Middle Eastern Guy as the villain" against us, as if we're supposed to reflect deeply on our own impressions on such a thing when it was the movie itself that set up those very expectations to begin with. And I certainly don't think that this was the only possible way around the character, since the Mandarin is such an outdated character and too much of a racist caricature to be taken seriously, which I've heard echoed over many of the film's defenders. Do people really actually feel that way? Have people read the comics, and was that the impression they were left with after reading? Or was it because that's exactly what Shane Black said in an interview over a year ago? Now let's talk about propaganda.
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