Now that the first trailer for Iron Man 3 is out, we've all seen our first glimpse of the Mandarin, Tony Stark's biggest adversary in the comics. The Mandarin is sort of a Fu Manchu knock-off, who was described as a "racist caricature" by none other than Shane Black, the director of Iron Man 3. So even if Iron Man 3 wasn't a co-production with China, chances are the studio would have toned down the character a lot.
How good a job did they do of removing the weird racial subtext from the character? And how does it work to cast the Anglo-Indian Ben Kingsley in the role? We asked some real-life Asian comics nerds, including one Marvel Comics writer, for their thoughts.
Marjorie M. Liu is the author of the Dirk & Steele series and the Hunter Kiss series, and she's also written a lot of Marvel comics over the years, including Astonishing X-Men, Dark Wolverine, NYX and X-23. She tells us:
The Mandarin is pretty much a direct descendent of the Fu Manchu yellow peril caricature-at best Orientalist, at worst, racist. The diabolic Asiatic is a hoary Hollywood staple – one of many stereotypes that Asian Americana have long had to endure - whether it's the Fu Manchu, the Kung Fu master, the Dragon Lady, or the bucktooth nerd. What's amazing is that China through its economic might has succeeded in extracting from Hollywood what civil rights groups and Asian American petitions have been unable to: more respectful representations of its citizens. If only every minority group had a massive economy! No more Jar-Jar Binks, no more Hugo Weaving playing a future Korean but looking more like a bad cosplay Romulan.
As for Ben Kingsley's portrayal - ultimately, this is a bit of racial pinch-hitting. Can't upset our Chinese economic allies - well, any brown face will do. After all, the Mandarin was created multiracial –- his father Chinese, his mother an English noblewoman — and Mr. Kingsley, himself biracial, has long played characters of various ethnicities (Prince of Persia anybody?). And if you're going to do yellowface, its probably "safer" with another minority playing the role. Safer for the studios, but not for any of us who've had to live with the stereotypes hanging over our heads.
We also talked to Jeff Yang, who's edited two anthologies of Asian American shared-universe superhero comics, Secret Identities and Shattered. Yang tells us:
So I've seen the trailer, and I've also read the assertions from [Marvel Studios President] Kevin Feige that the Mandarin's ethnicity is "purposefully blurred" — something that's obvious given the images of Anglo-Indian Ben Kingsley in the role, with a wardrobe and hairstyle that look vaguely Mongol warrior in origin. Marvel fanboys will remember that the Mandarin is actually biracial: His father is said to be a "direct descendant of Genghis Khan" (not that big of a brag: The Great Khan had so many offspring that one in 200 living males are his direct descendants!) — and in fact, the Mongol empire spread so widely that many of these descendants are spread across Eastern Europe and the Middle East... as well as India, where the Timurid royal house claimed to be of the lineage of Khan's son Chagatai. Khanate lineage is particularly prized in many Muslim societies, such as Russia's Tatars and among the Uzbeks of Central Asia. So it actually makes more literal sense for Kingsley to be cast in the role, with an updated Mongol look, than someone who's Han Chinese wearing the Mandarin's traditional Chinese scholar-inspired outfit. The Mongols, if you recall, kicked Mandarin-speaking Chinese butts and took over the country for generations. If a descendant of the Khan took the name it would really be out of sarcastic spite.
But that doesn't answer the question of whether this is any better as far as racial portrayal. My own take — and the point that we make in SHATTERED, which is an anthology that's all about upending and reinventing cliche images of Asian Americans — is that a good villain is not a bad thing. If Kingsley, a terrific actor, can bring authenticity, three-dimensionality, complexity, and that dark charisma that's central to a great bad guy's success to the role, then I'll be the first to cheer him on. If, on the other hand, the Mandarin ends up as another Fu Manchu manquee with no real backstory and nothing but lame buzzphrases to flesh out his character, then I'll boo louder than anyone.
And finally, we spoke to Marissa Lee, the editor of Racebending.com, who speculates that making the Mandarin more of a Central Asian villain may play well in China, where the country is currently dealing with a huge Uighur separatist movement that's being described as "China's war on terror." She adds:
The shift of Iron Man's villain to a vaguely Middle Eastern-type character is reflective of how American orientalism attitudes have shifted to focusing on otherizing the Middle East. If structurally functions the same as yellow peril, it just kind of aggregates all of America's attitudes towards the otherized "East" into this antagonist character. (Contrast to Tony Stark, this wealthy, white, brilliant, capitalist American hero.)
To be honest, with the Mandarin the greatest concern is just how the character will be portrayed. Can they separate the character from yellow peril no matter how it is fanwanked or no-prized? Especially with his character design hodgepodged from so many cultures that Hollywood has otherized. As Entertainment Weekly pointed out, he's got Fu Manchu robes, "samurai hair", a "bin Laden-esque" beard...so it's still all of these physical markers of the Western conceptualization of the mysterious and shady "Orient" folded visually into one villainous character.
I giggled when I read Kevin Feige's explanation: "It's less about his specific ethnicity than the symbolism of various cultures and iconography that he perverts for his own end." The Mandarin and Hollywood have a lot in common!