Fanboy Meets World is a bi-weekly column that runs on alternate Thursdays. This is a (very) special edition.
Warning: The following post contains MASSIVE SPOILERS for "Iron Man 3."
The Mandarin of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is not the Mandarin you know and love. He is not a half-Chinese, half-British terrorist fueled by the ten rings and Makluan technology. He is a dopey British actor of vague central Asian descent who is so whacked-out on goofballs that he may or may not be fully aware that his frightening missives are actually backed up by real terrorist activity. Is this a mistake? A giant Fin Fang Fumble? I say, “no.” If you don't think you can handle it you must learn to handle it. Because it is awesome.
The Marvel films (that is, the real Marvel films, and you know what I mean by that) are on the short list of movies that appeal to both the masses but also get it right. They respect the source material, they know how to act like comic books (crazy final panels, team-ups) and they tap into the breezy fun that is inherent in the artform. By and large they have not wussed out or deviated too radically from canon. When changes were made (e.g. Tony Stark is a bit brash, but he's not quite as Downey plays him) they were subtle enough and extracted the essence of characters long developed over decades. If these films were that slavish to the originals the climactic “Avengers” fight in New York would have jokes about Freddie Prinze Jr.
But this is big. Radically altering a central foe like the Mandarin is a big ass canonical breach. This is like Lex Luthor secretly being a dumbass. This is like Homer Simpson going vegan. This is a change unlike anything “fan-approved” comic book movies have ever seen.
To the non-Fanboys I say: ask a comic book nerd how he feels about “Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer.” (If he doesn't want to talk, just chase him – you'll catch up soon, for the most part we don't run too well.) Between pants we'll mutter something along the lines of “Galactus is a cloud.” followed by a whole bunch of obscenity. That film (not entirely awful, but sure as hell not good) destroyed all acceptability when it presented Jack Kirby's iconic Devourer of Worlds as some sort of amorphous space being. Not even Jessica Alba's painted-on blue spandex could save the movie then.
Same with “Superman Returns.” Much of this movie is good, but Fanboys just couldn't (and we shouldn't!) accept the notion of Kal-El as some sort of absentee father to his and Lois Lane's kid. Even though there are some storylines in which Supes is a dad, the way in which it was revealed crosses a line that makes that film pure Kryptonite.
“Iron Man Three” is different. And part of the reason is accepting that the Marvel Cinematic Universe (a term brilliantly phrased by the greatest entertainment impresario of our age, Marvel Studios Grand Mufti Kevin Feige) is now established as its own thing. It has its own internal logic, its own style, its own canon. I offer two words: Science Bros!
The swaggering, jokey nature of the Iron Man entries in the MCU are a perfect match for director/co-writer Shane Black, and the Mandarin's switchemaroo is right out of his playbook (see “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” for the best example.) (Also, see “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” for Michelle Monaghan in a sexy Santa suit.) Black's buddy-cop vibe is felt all over “Iron Man Three,” especially the sequence before the big Mandarin reveal, in which Tony Stark must infiltrate his HQ using only hand-crafted weapons made from kiddie toys. Is this in keeping with canon from years of Marvel comics? Maybe yes, maybe no – but it is absolutely simpatico with how Tony Stark has been developed in these films. In other words, “movie” Tony Stark is a real thing now, and facing down a Potemkin Village villain propped up by television cameras and drugs is absolutely perfect.
So rejoice! The Mandarin you love is still in the books and there's nothing preventing Fin Fang Foom from showing up in the future. (Hell, maybe Ben Kingsley's “Trevor” will sober up in prison and be contacted by aliens - you never know.) I'll stand with you on the barricades about Galactus and “Superman Returns,” but listen to reason and accept that Shane Black's version of the Mandarin is a great bit of storytelling that uses tropes from canon to create something bigger and better. If the rest of the movie stank, there'd be reason to fight, but sometimes we must put aside our nerdcore rage in the face of a good idea.