Why I’m Okay With The Mandarin

This is part of a multi-blog series about Race and Comic Books put together by RodtRDH. Justin Tiemeyer has written the first of many such posts [about black comic book characters] on his blog, Cavemen Go.

One of my favourite blogs [you can see it in the sidebar] featured an article sometime ago titled “On Marvel, Mandarin, and Marginalization.” The gist of said article asking why an Asian villain like the Mandarin is being portrayed before any Asian American lead heroes. I’m going to start my defence with the quotes racebending.com used:

“There are certain fears and certain strengths the character evokes that are applicable, but of course you have to completely remove any of that short sighted cultural ignorance that leads to any sort of bigotry in the storytelling. That isn’t to say those fears and shortcomings of Iron Man as relating to that character aren’t relevant…He was based in China which was then mysterious because it was Red China. Today China is mysterious in other ways because it’s Global China.”

– Jon Favreau, director of Iron Man and Iron Man 2 to CHUD in 2006

“You have to do The Mandarin. The problem with The Mandarin is, the way it’s depicted in the comic books, you don’t want to see that.”

– Favreau again, to MTV in 2010

“The Mandarin is a racist caricature.”

– Iron Man 3 director Shane Black at Long Beach ComicCon, October 2011

I’m not going to skirt around the fact that the character was indeed rooted in the “yellow peril” that was rampant at the time of his inception, but the following images should paint a picture of his evolution since that time.

From left to right: The Mandarin as he first appeared in the 60s, then the 90s, and the present day.

I haven’t read all of the Iron Man comics, but having read from Fear Itself up until right before Long Way Down [story arcs], I feel like I have a fairly firm idea of who the character is. The Mandarin is an excellent villain.

Every time he appeared in a panel he dominated it; he’s a character that oozes power and authority, and that can be seen in anything from his body language to the way other villains react to his presence.

To date, the only prominent Asian characters that Marvel has featured have been Hogun, of the Warriors Three, appearing in Thor, and Jim Morita, one of The Howling Commandos, who appeared in Captain America: The First Avenger. I’m pretty sure I can count their combined lines on my fingers. That’s not to say that they were portrayed as being weak characters, because they definitely proved their mettle alongside the protagonists. The point is that they were minor roles, a case where their actions did not actually speak louder than their words.

Look at the guy, stone cold.

For the Mandarin to feature as the primary antagonist in Iron Man 3 means something. It’s the exclamation that yes, an Asian character is the equal to our hero, a legitimate threat that poses more than a small problem. That’s nothing to scoff at- that may even be something to be proud of. The Mandarin as he currently appears in the comics is a strong, powerful, intelligent villain who threatens Tony Stark on both a physical and intellectual level. As an Asian man, that’s not something that I have a problem with.

At this year’s Comic-Con it was confirmed that one of the antagonists of Iron Man 3 would indeed be the Mandarin, and that he would be portrayed by Ben Kingsley. This news irks me, to say the least.

Shane Black, director of the third film, called the actor “lovely,” following it up by saying “This guy is the Mandarin.” Sir Ben Kingsley is half Gujatari Indian and half Caucasian. He has portrayed Gandhi. Coming 2013 he will also be the new face of a comic book character with a fifty-year-old history of being Chinese.

Iron Man 3 is no Red Dawn. This isn’t going to be a portrayal of China as an evil superpower encroaching upon the West. Black is a competent, talented director with the foresight to know that he might offend. All that being said, I truly wish that the Mandarin was being played by a Chinese actor, or at the very least an East Asian one. Contrary to what Racebending has written a non-White villain is not, in and of itself, a harmful thing.

Favreau said that he we “don’t want to see” the Mandarin as he’s portrayed in the comic books. I, for one, wouldn’t mind.


10 responses to “Why I’m Okay With The Mandarin

  1. I want to comment but I can’t think of anything I can contribute. Basically I think your reasoning is totally sound. There.

  2. I see the concerns as coming from looking at the character at different parts of his evolution. You’re digging contemporary Mandarin whereas Favreau and Black are wary the 60s Mandarin. I think that it could easily pulled off well and without being offensive. This isn’t Boris and Natasha in Rocky and Bullwinkle, this is an intelligent and dangerous villain. What you said, basically.

  3. Evan, this post was great. I loved it. Also, with movies sparking the popularity of villains these days (Ledger’s Joker/Loki) who’s to say it wont happen with Mandarin.

  4. I was hoping for Jet Li, which would make the movie cool (Jet Li Mandarin beating Tony’s ass from coast to coast) but would not be in keeping with the comic book fighting style of the character (he zaps people, not beat the snot out of them with his bare hands in every fight).
    But this guy should do well. Unlike the Thor guys who were mad about Heimdall the doorman God being black, I will give him a chance.

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  6. Even as a kid, I wondered why a Chinese villain, from China, had an English letter on his chest.

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  8. BTW, the portrayal of Mandarin in Iron Man 3 was awesome. Stereotype reversal at its finest.

    • Hi there, and thanks for commenting! I obviously wrote this before seeing Iron Man 3, and definitely did enjoy the movie overall. My issue with the “stereotype reversal” is that this particular way of doing it has been repeated so often these past few years that actually portraying an Asian villain would actually be refreshing at this point. I cover that more in my post here.

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