There are many great comic book hero villain dichotomies. Superman is the brawn with heart, whereas Lex Luthor is the brain without one. Peter Parker is the boy without a father. Norman Osborn is the father without son. When playing out epic scale good vs evil dramas opposites collide like matter and anti matter.
So when it comes to Iron Man what kind of opposite does he face in a mythological context? As an honest businessman he’s fought crooked CEOs. As a capitalist he’s gone toe to toe with The Crimson Dynamo and other Soviet villains. Most of villains are bush league in Iron Man’s Rogues gallery. They lack the punch to make the transition to a rivalry of truly mythic proportions. In fact Iron Man’s most iconic villain, the Mandarin, is the only one that truly fits the bill. That being said I can see why many people are upset at Ben Kingsley portrayal of the classic villain. And I’m still going to defend it.
The dichotomy between Iron Man and the Mandarin in the comics is between science and sorcery. If Iron Man represents the futurist trying to create tomorrow via reason and understanding, the Mandarin is an ancient mystic trying to regress society as a conqueror. In the comics he is a villain with ten rings each with a seemingly magical power (fire blast, light blast, mind control, ect). As far as villains go he is a pretty solid challenge for Iron Man. He’s intelligent and his powers are diverse enough to give the Armored Avenger a run for his money. In Iron Man 3 Ben Kingsley portrays “the Mandarin”. In this incarnation he is the Mouth Piece for the 10 Rings, the terrorist organization which captured Tony Stark in the first film. In frightening broadcasts this “Mandarin” proclaims he is setting off bombs around the world to teach America. Visually he’s intimidating. His voice is a strange parody of a Southern US accent. He even wears a ring on each finger. It works amazingly well for the first half of the movie. He’s as stylish Loki, as mad as the Red Skull, and has the political gravitas of Magneto. This is due in no small part to Ben Kingsley’s considerable talent as an actor. He is an uber terrorist in the vein of Bin Ladin who seems that he could be the ultimate foil to Tony Stark.
That is until it is revealed that he’s actually Trevor, a British method actor with drug and alcohol problems. He has been hired by the film’s real villain to pretend to be the ultimate terrorist. My first reaction was that this was a bastardization of the Mandarin. I remember watching him on the old Iron Man cartoon as a child and thinking how cool he was. As I said in my overall review I’m generally a purist when it comes to substantive issues in movie adaptations. I’m the kind of person who missed the giant squid in the Watchmen. When it comes down to it what is the cost benefit to telling a story when altering the source material. The loss of the giant squid in Watchmen cost a lot in the overall theme and message of the film. The benefit was that it was less ‘ridiculous’ and more film able. I’d say a net negative.
In exchange for sacrificing the Mandarin we received a hilarious character exchange between Trevor and Stark which played right into Downey’s wheel house, a more complex and intriguing scheme on the part of Adrian Killich, a largely more coherent plot, and a unique take on the villain which had everyone scratching their head on how to adapt to film. A science versus magic story could have worked in the Marvel Cinematic universe as Thor has said they are essentially the same thing. It would have required an entirely different plot. The Mandarin’s Rings are alien science that resemble magic. That means to include them you have to do an alien ship crashing on Earth. Ben Kingsley finding the rings, and figuring out their powers. It could be done but it would be flash and not as much substance. Iron Man 3 is a movie about fear and overcoming it. Stark has PTSD. He obsessively is building Iron Men to protect in case the aliens from the Avengers come back. He has anxiety attacks thinking about New York. Then fear is given a face and voice in the form of the Mandarin. What symbolically will lead to Iron Man being reborn, other than finding out that his worst fear is nothing more than a coward or a fraud? The movie ends with Stark taking greater command of his destiny, by not surrendering to his fears. I approve of this version of the Mandarin strongly. If it were published in the Ultimate imprint back in the early 2000’s it would have been met with rave reviews.There is no monster under your bed, only Trevor.
If you want to see Tony Stark face off against a a wizard type character look no further than this: