EDITORIAL: The Mandarin & The Chinese Connection
Ben Kingsley's brilliant, but controversial turn as the character has been cause for debate here on CBM since the movie's release. Now find out what Oxbow feels is the true reason behind "Trevor the Mandarin" and other story SNAFU's in Iron Man 3!
Getting a "mandarin twist" has a much different meaning today than it did a year ago--and judging by the billion-dollar box office, audiences like their Iron Man that way! My first reaction to Trevor was that it was a clever conceit, a "villain" who serves as a scapegoat for the three-minute-hate of the American people while the true enemy operates under the system...with his tentacles reaching deep into the system. This iteration tramples on decades of other appearances for what is perhaps the most dogged of Iron Man's rogues' gallery. It has made the movie an easy target for scorn, particularly on the web, and proof to some that Marvel is starting to slip from the outset during this crucial Phase 2. That is not the truth, however (Thor willing)!
The reasons for this particular twist have gone largely unmentioned within public circles. And, as is often the case, the reasons have to do with money. A Chinese company helped Disney co-produce Iron Man 3. This partnership would ensure both a greater cut of profits for Disney, and a bigger box office in China--nearly $100 million. Although Iron Man is a world famous hero today, there are a couple of other reasons for this. First, the addition of four minutes of international-exclusive footage that United States audiences never had the opportunity to see, including scenes such as this: "Dr. Wu...has a scene where he engages in a telephone conversation [with] Tony Stark's A.I. sidekick, Jarvis, and a scene in which he performs acupuncture-aided surgery on the wounded Stark, with the help of his assistant played by [Chinese-favorite actress, Fan] Bingbing."
I would have very much liked to see those scenes but sadly, they were not meant for my American eyes but for the Eastern financiers and movie-goers (although they are now available to American audiences as deleted scenes on the DVD). Second is the decision to change The Mandarin from what is, despite the best efforts of many gifted writers, essentially a Chinese-villain stereotype. In the story we got, the stereotype is inverted into a tool that evil men can use to manipulate the minds of the public. This is great writing born of necessity--of limits that were in reality imposed from the outside.
As co-producer, Chinese executives are helping to make this movie possible. And the first rule of Hollywood is: don't expect anything for free. If you are going hat-in-hand to others looking for help with your script, property, etc., there will be strings attached to their financing of your dream. I expect that the two main "asks" attached to Chinese assistance were the inclusion of scenes with staples from the Chinese movie industry, and the alteration of the villainous Fu Manchu--I mean, The Mandarin.
Rather than a Chinese stereotype, the Mandarin of the MCU is more of a world-citizen, integrating characteristics of many cultures from Japanese to Afghani. It is noteworthy that the co-producers did not ask for the Mandarin, the only Chinese character in the story, to be cast using a Chinese actor. They did not want to be attached to what they see as an anachronism, an image from the bygone days of open Western hate and prejudice.
Can you blame them? If you were paying millions and millions of dollars to people to make a story about a bad guy called "The Sheikh"--and you were an Arabian oil tycoon--would that change how you viewed the project? What about if you were a Texan oil tycoon and now the bad guy was called "The Redneck"...would that make you wanna open your wallet wide?
Kevin Smith talks about this subject several times in his excellent "Film School Fridays" podcast: if you want to tell the story that you want to with the people that you want to, then you must try, as much as possible, to take money out of the equation. Because as soon as you start taking money or other big resources from someone else, then they are going to have the right to exercise control over the final product. Of course they're going to stick their nose in the kitchen and tell you how to make the turkey; in their eyes, it's partly their turkey!
Marvel Studios is not going anywhere soon. Their Iron man 3 gambit has paid off well for them, and they will win back fan-cred with their other Phase 2 movies if they are careful to stay true to the heart of the source material--which they have shown that they can do. No, the main issue is about how they and other film-makers can keep other cooks out of the kitchen...basically how they can remain financially independent. The selling of Spiderman, X-men and The Fantastic Four licenses, among others, must have helped Marvel Studios somewhat towards that goal. The succesful string of superhero movies we have enjoyed the last few years certainly can't hurt. The larger issue, however, is something that affects any fan of these kind of stories:
For the most part, big money and high-quality comic book movies go hand-in-hand these days. By their very nature, CBM's, sci-fi movies and the like are usually so bloated with special effects that the majority of the budget can easily be eaten up by SFX! Add to that the fact that most big-name franchises are corporately owned, and that the people want big stars in their CBM's, marketing, etc. and the cost goes up even more. And while all this may mean a great movie in the best of worlds, it has not been the case in far too many other instances. Until the cost of SFX goes down, or until more Neil Blomkamps and Josh Tranks learn to navigate the system, it's going to be a high-roller's game. it's just too bad there's no Tony Stark around in real life, to do Iron Man his way!
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