Editor’s note: This article is presented as part of the limited article series There Was An Idea…, where every week, the Lewton Bus crew dive into the Marvel Cinematic Universe in the run-up to Marvel’s Avengers: Infinity War.
When I say that one of my favourite comic book characters is The Mandarin, I get a few strange looks.
Seriously though, that image above should explain why people find it strange that I hold such a soft spot for such a racist caricature.
Well, since it’s Iron Man 3 week (OK, it’s more like a few days now thanks to Infinity War coming out a week earlier) here at Lewton Bus, I figured now is as good a time as any for me to explain why I love him so much.
(Oh, one more thing. Whenever I talk about something positive about The Mandarin, you can automatically add, “Unfortunately, he was/still is a massively racist caricature” at the end of it. It’s pretty much a given when talking about him.)
i. Villains Act, Heroes React
“That’s the problem with heroes, really. Their only purpose in life is to thwart others. They make no plans, develop no strategies. They react instead of act. Without villains, heroes would stagnate. Without heroes, villains would be running the world. Heroes have morals. Villains have work ethic.”
—Kang the Conqueror
One interesting thing you notice when you’re a paranoid shut-in who substitutes fictional words in the place of human interaction like myself is the fact that heroes are often a reactive agent in stories.
Luke Skywalker doesn’t begin his path to Jedi-hood until the Empire kills his aunt and uncle. Rey doesn’t leave Jakku until the First Order bombs her scrapyard, and so on. As a result, villains tend to be a more dynamic agent in stories. You can probably see where I’m going with this. The Mandarin, as a villain, has more agency than Tony Stark. Very rarely does Ol’ Shell-Head take a pre-emptive strike against Big Bad Mando. I don’t know about you, but I often find characters with more agency more appealing. There’s a reason why villains often occupy a greater space in our cultural consciousness, and there’s a reason why this villain occupies a bigger place in my heart than Iron Man.
There’s also an unfortunate gendered component in this trope because only men are granted this “privilege”. If you see a woman of colour in the main cast, chances are she’s not going to be the overarching villain that plagues the hero at every turn. Chances are, even if she is a baddie, she’s going to find herself in the arms of a white dude sooner or later. We saw it in Colleen Wing, in Elektra, in a majority of the main female cast of Agents of SHIELD, and we saw inklings of it in Helen Cho. In the stories about peoples of colour told by white people, only the men are granted the agency to stand against the white man. The women are always turned to their side by the power of the white man’s dick.
So long as Marvel keeps him around, The Mandarin will always be positioned against the white male hegemony that Tony Stark represents, and I can’t help but admire him because of that. However, the fact that the only place that I can find PoC characters that stand against white male hegemony are in the male characters really rubs me the wrong way. I mean, these characters are often horrible to women to show the audience just how villainous they are. They aren’t exactly the kind of people I’d want around my daughters.
ii. Mr. S
I’m wondering, do Libertarian nuts like Iron Man? Because he could easily be construed as a Randian superhero. You could definitely see Libertarians embracing him as a self-made billionaire playboy philanthropist despite the fact that he (much like every other purported “self-made” individual) built his fortune using the wealth inherited from his family while exploiting the labour of those who weren’t lucky enough to be born rich.
The man pretty much embodies the phrase, “my work done my way”. In the first Iron Man, when he sees that his munitions are being used in a way that he deems wrong, his first action upon returning to America is to immediately shut down the weapons manufacturing division of Stark International. In Iron Man 2 Stark is brought forth to a congressional hearing where he’s ordered to reveal the secrets of his Iron Man technology. He tells the government to “suck it”, and the crowd bursts into cheers. Not unlike Hank Rearden, no?
Stark doesn’t try to disseminate his tech amongst the general populous where it could be used for numerous altruistic purposes. Don’t you think fire and rescue would love to have an environmentally sealed, indestructible suit with hi-tech scanning software that grants the user super-strength and speed? His repulsor tech could easily be incorporated into the public transportation system, allowing buses and trains to operate in the open air, with his AI technology controlling everything so we don’t have mid-air collisions due to human error.
But he doesn’t. It’s his work, done his way, and nothing else matters.
Naturally, I find Randian Objectivism to be a garbage ideology for garbage people (sorry Mr. Ditko), and as a result, Iron Man isn’t exactly my favourite superhero (that honor goes to Peng Deilan, the Wonder Woman of China).
This dislike of Iron Man feeds into why I like The Mandarin so much. Any character willing to fight against Randian Objectivism is fine in my book.
iii. You’ll Never See Him Coming
Let’s talk about Iron Man 3’s Mandarin for a second. I understood what the movie was trying to do by changing the character. An American warmonger preyed on the fears of a racist West by creating a supervillain that was the combination of every single “other” that the west feared at the time— Muslim terrorists, the scary (but exotic) Orient, all topped with a dash of cyber terrorism for flavour. Why? So the western warmonger can continue to profit. A powerful statement on both the military industrial complex and western imperialism. Unfortunately, it turned the few people of colour in the movie into pawns in a dick-measuring contest between two white westerners. And the fact that Ben Kingsley is one just adds to those unfortunate implications.
Smart on one hand, tone deaf on the other.
The Mandarin wasn’t the first character they tried to recontextualise in this manner. In Doctor Strange, The Ancient One (originally your traditional Asian mystical mentor) was turned into a white woman of Celtic background. This was, in my opinion, the wrong way to reconstruct the character. They gave a role that could have been given to a person of colour to the whitest bitch in the goddamn universe.
They did much better with The Man-Ape in 2018’s Black Panther. Originally, the character was just a man who dressed up like a gorilla. Yes, there was an in-universe reason why he was dressed like that, but it still doesn’t change the fact that he’s still a black man dressed like a goddamn ape. The movie reconstructed this character by turning him into M’Baku, the leader of the Jabari tribe, who worship the Indian monkey-god Hanuman. He’s a proud warrior who also happens to be a massive doofus that laughs at his own jokes. This was much better than just replacing the problematic character with a white person.
Why couldn’t they have done the same thing with The Mandarin in Iron Man 3? It was possible, hell it’s been done before.
2008 graced us with the best piece of media in the Iron Man franchise with the cartoon, Iron Man: Armoured Adventures.
In that series, The Mandarin was the big bad of the series, but instead of being a racist Fu Manchu caricature, he was a complete human being. In the series, The Mandarin was better known as Gene Khan and we slowly got to know him over the course of the show. He had character development and agency within the story; we could sympathise with his hatred for his abusive step-father and his desire to do right by his deceased mother. This isn’t exactly Pulitzer-grade storytelling here, but at least it was something. In Iron Man 3, they didn’t even bother trying, they just cast the character aside so two white dudes can duke it out.
iv. Good Artists Borrow, Great Artists Steal, the Best Artists Take Back
So, you’re still probably wondering why, why in the name of Jesus, Mary, Joseph and all their carpenter friends do I still hold an affection for The Mandarin? Even with all those positive aspects he’s a massive racist caricature. Surely there are better characters out there for me to admire?
Let’s go on a slight tangent here. Now I’m assuming you’ve all seen the music video for The Story of O.J. by Jay-Z? The video is doing something called “reappropriation” where disparaging words or artefacts that were used against a group are taken back by the group in question.
This is probably my biggest motivation to why I’m still fond of The Mandarin, and I’m not the only one who’s thinking along these lines. Jenn Fang of Reappropriate has taken Jubilee as her personal mascot. She has found pride in one of the lamest comic book characters in the history of comic book characters— a mall rat that can shoot fireworks from her fingers.
In many ways taking back a character like The Mandarin can be more subversive and empowering than a character like Jubilee. How? Because Jubilee is merely just lame (sorry Ms. Fang) whereas The Mandarin is a virulently racist representation of why the East was bad, and why the West was a “better” society. There are many reasons why the East is inferior according to caricatures like The Mandarin, but the one I want to focus on is misogyny.
Before we continue, I would like to point out that, yes, Asian folks have a problem with misogyny. Whether we’re East, South, or Southeast, Asian folks and the societies we inhabit have a misogyny problem. The amount of spousal abuse and female denigration I’ve witnessed in my family alone makes that apparent. My family is also Northern though, so maybe that has something to do with it. According to Chinese people, Northern men are best known for spousal abuse.
But with characters descended from the Fu Manchu stereotype (like the Mandarin), that misogyny isn’t a reflection of the societal ills of Asia that need to be exposed and then treated. It’s instead used as a bludgeon to denigrate our cultures as somehow “more” misogynistic than the West. Which is why Asian women need to “escape” these cultures (or more often get “rescued” from these cultures) and worship the white dick. Because somehow white people have solved the misogyny problem that still plagues the rest of the world.
Asian misogyny is a massive problem, but it’s a problem that we will solve, on our terms.
This is why taking back The Mandarin is can be much more subversive and empowering; it takes back the conversation from white people. Outsiders who already view us as “the other” don’t get to diagnose our societal ills, that right belongs to us, and by extension, so do characters like The Mandarin.
What else can I say about Big Bad Mando? He’s a massively racist caricature who I still admire on some level. He stands against many of the things that I stand against, and I hope to eventually reappropriate him so that he can better represent me and other folks who look like me.
Perhaps it’s time I finally write that six-part fanfic epic where The Mandarin is the overall big bad of the MCU, rather than Thanos.