Anybody who’s a fan of the “Iron Man” comics knows that The Mandarin — he of the many powerful rings of doom — is of Chinese ancestry. But when it was announced that acclaimed actor Ben Kingsley — who is not Chinese — was to play the role in “Iron Man 3,” it didn’t seem like that big a deal (check out MTV Splashpage for the scoop). Sure, it was a bit of a scandal when a purported “Akira” movie was to have an all-Caucasian cast. But Kingsley is an Oscar-winning actor; he could make playing Mandarin work. And Scarlett Johansson is hardly Russian but makes a great Natasha Romanoff.
But as revealed today in a Entertainment Weekly interview with Kevin Feige, president of Marvel Studios, this version of the classic “Iron Man” villain might not be Chinese at all. Or maybe he is. Or rather — he is a “hodgepodge of various warrior motifs,” including a samurai and, at least as described by EW, Osama Bin Laden.
Was this effort to create a more “generic” villain for “Iron Man 3” made in order not to be offensive to any one ethnic group of people? The very earliest “Iron Man” stories were written at the very height of the Cold War, and were not the most PC things in the entire world. His origin story in “Tales of Suspense” #39, for example, is quite over-the-top, and can be considered somewhat racist. The character of The Mandarin himself is very grounded in a long tradition of semi-mystical, mysterious and nefarious Asian villains of the Fu Manchu variety in the early pop-culture of the 20th Century. Perhaps a “makeover” of this bad guy for the audience of 2012 is long overdue.
But will hardcore Iron Man fans care at all about The Mandarin not being specifically Chinese? And, in order not to offend people, will the default go-to villains in many movies end up being of indeterminate ethnic background?
Or did that seemingly trivial description of The Mandarin in the EW article, “his bin Laden-esque beard, and the AK-47 he keeps at his side,” tell us just a little bit more?