Extreme Mandarin makeovers

While we’re on the subject of veteran actors thrust into oddly controversial roles, this is Ben Kingsley playing the villain in the upcoming “Iron Man 3”:

His character is called The Mandarin.  In the comics, he looks more like this:

Obviously, the Mandarin is meant to be Chinese.  It would seem somewhat odd for a supervillain of any other extraction to call himself “the Mandarin.”  Kingsley sure has the vibe right, but obviously his character is not Chinese.  (I haven’t read the script; maybe they’ll introduce some element of his backstory that says he was raised in China, or is fascinated by Chinese culture and history.)

The reason I’ve heard kicked around for the character’s revamp in “Iron Man 3” is that when he was first introduced, way back in the 60s, the Mandarin was a somewhat embarrassing “Yellow Peril” type, basically Fu Manchu with magic rings (or rings packed full of alien technology, depending on which story you’re reading.  For some reason, even though Iron Man was recently seen fighting an alien army headed by the Norse sorcerer god Loki, both of these power sources were evidently deemed too silly for “Iron Man 3,” so the Mandarin’s rings are just decorative – he’s a terrorist mastermind in the film.)

But comics writers have been moving the Mandarin away from those clumsy, insensitive origins for a long time, classing him up into a respectable villain.  I’m a few years out of touch with the comics, so I’m not sure what shape his official origin has been retconned into these days, but I have no doubt he’s allowed to retain his villainous dignity.

Ben Kingsley will do a great job, I’m sure – he sounds quite menacing in the “Iron Man 3” trailers – but why couldn’t a fine Chinese actor play a villain called “The Mandarin?”  There’s no reason the Mandarin has to be written as some sort of offensive racial caricature – he’s not been portrayed that way in the comics for ages.  It seems like an opportunity that should have gone to an actor of Chinese extraction, but I haven’t read anything to suggest such an offer was made.

Kinglsey has Indian blood, and is of course famed for playing Gandhi, so he’s not totally out of left field in the part.  The filmmakers want to recreate the character as a sort of multi-purpose generic international terrorist.  They might just have been head-over-heels to have Kingsley for the part, and he certainly belongs on the short list of actors who deserve a shot at supervillainy.  But I can’t shake the nagging feeling this creative decision was made, at least in part, to preserve the film’s viability in that very important Chinese market, much as the villains in the “Red Dawn” remake were retroactively transformed into North Koreans. 

David Lo Pan of “Big Trouble in Little China” remains the post-Fu Manchu cinema king of elegant, aristocratic Chinese supervillains pitted against wisecracking Americans.  (Man, just think how much damage Jack Burton could do with a suit of Iron Man armor…)