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.
“Fortune cookies. They look Chinese. They sound… Chinese.”
When Tony Stark flies away from his crumbling home to Tennessee, he encounters a young kid whose father is not around anymore, and who tinkers enough that he built his own potato gun. Together, they go to a place Tony believes is the spot of an attack perpetrated by a veteran soldier who was radicalized by Ben Kingsley’s The Mandarin. As they reflect on whether the attacker went to heaven or hell (because his shadow is missing from among those of the victims on the wall), the kid looks at the crater on the ground and says with a smile “You know what that crater reminds me of? That giant wormhole in New York!” Tony doesn’t want to talk about it, but the kid adds “Are they coming back? The Aliens?”. Slowly, as he explains himself, Tony goes into a fight or flight panic attack, mirroring the previous instance that brought him to Tennessee, where he literally flies away in his armor. The crater, the kid being afraid, this is too much for Tony.
Tony was once a kid wondering about the Other, stargazing, and building his way to new heights. After his encounter with the Chitauri in The Avengers, what happened to Tony is exactly what happens to many soldiers in America who return home, and are left with the nerve-wracking push and pull of the war away from home.
This moment is when the connection hit me; Of course, the kid was going to be a surrogate to Tony’s earlier years. But when I saw this little kid, fascinated and scared, with wondering, awe-stricken eyes, I understood this was the emotional reaction so many people feel about “the Orient”. This is why Tony Stark was selling weapons to the U.S. Army to fight the Middle-East. He was selling them on a dream of the Other. That is precisely why the Dream of The Mandarin is such a perfect idea for our times.
As Aldrich Killian (the actual villain of Iron Man Three) puts it, “Ever since that big dude with the hammer fell out of the sky, subtlety’s kinda had its day.” The genius idea of deconstructing The Mandarin is brilliant, not simply because it explodes a problematic trope, but because It also understands well why Westerners are so enamored with their cliched imagery of the Orient; In a world where alien threats are real, The Mandarin is a reassuring menace. It is the Evil To Be Defeated. It is the fear we build up and recognize and weaponize against. It is the reason we are righteous in our anger. The reason we can arm ourselves, build better guns, sew ourselves betters suits, and fight with a more righteous anger.
When Colonel Rhodes, in the suit of the Iron Patriot, is sent to avenge a Mandarin attack, he is immediately sent to Pakistan. Cocking his guns and aiming at nameless Pakistani people in a cave, wearing robes and hats that make them look like Afghanistan’s mujahideen. But there is no bad guy there. Later, Rhodes will inadvertently free Pakistani women from a workshop factory. Make no mistake, this is a conscious dig at America’s imperialism by Shane Black. This is the push and pull of the Other. The one we want to destroy. The one we want to save from itself. Later, Tony discovers that the great terrorist known as The Mandarin is a British actor in a Florida beach house who was created by Aldrich Killian, your white entrepreneur villain for the evening. The reason why the twist works so damn well is precisely because Shane Black toys with imagery we’ve seen so often on TV. The terrorists making grand threats. Vaguely foreign symbols, flags, guns. It must be true, because those guys look like terrorists, right?
The Mandarin was always an encapsulation of the Western gaze on the Orient, and fetishization of its appearance. Its Eastern philosophy. And a demonizing of its guise to suit both our desire and our fear of the Other. It is the Yellow Peril, but also Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Now, it is Osama Bin Laden and people in caves threatening our way of life, while there are actual white people who go on killing sprees in schools, or in this case explosively self-destruct in small towns in Tennessee because they are literally addicted to a drug called Extremis.
I can think of no greater subversion of the trope of the Other than the Mandarin. Being a home-made crystallization of our fantasies about the Orient, while the actual mass killing henchmen are broken white individuals who were given purpose by corrupted entrepreneurs who have only the Dream of money.
The backlash Shane Black experienced for his Mandarin twist was the perfect way to prove him right. As in the movie, Black’s plans were always to destroy the ‘knock-off’ Chinese Theater we hold dear. In destroying an iconic villain, he was looking to help Tony past his mistakes. Like Tony at the beginning of the film, labelling his newest suit of armor Mark 42, we cherish the imagery of our military, like toys in mint condition, kept in a box where we understand them, their stories, and their imaginary fights. What we usually don’t understand is that images of the Orient, as frightening as they are sometimes presented, are as man-made as our own suits. Puppet monsters of our own making, with the seducing guise of something foreign. There’s a question, then; Why do we build monsters? Because we need monsters. To be able to dream of bringing them down.
“You start with something pure. Something exciting. Then come the mistakes, the compromises.”
At the heart of the movie, Tony’s dilemma is reflected in three different individuals: The kid, Harley, as fascinated as he is frightened by the aliens. Aldrich, who wants to build an empire with his enterprise, AIM. Maya, who wants to rejuvenate cells. Both of the latter have an aim. Maya (sounds like MIA doesn’t it?) is led astray by the economic imperatives of AIM. While Iron Man forgets what it is he means when he says “I AM Iron Man.”
Behind those Thinkers, Tinkerers, and Entrepreneurs are all the men and women who were sold on The Dream, as their aim, to fight a war for the Entrepreneurs. They were given the weapons by the Tinkerers, and they were led by the Thinkers to believe the Other had less agency and individuality than themselves. I was shocked to see how Iron Man Three takes aim at the military and the industry that sells millions of Americans on a Dream, every day through a careful imagery. It’s the reason Bush called his wars the “War on Terror”. Why people brand acts of chaotic violence and extremist destruction “Evil”. The reason Tony prefers War Machine to the rebranded Iron Patriot is precisely because Tony walked that road. Selling the Dream to others, and because he can’t spot the real propaganda that is so essential to the Tinkerers, Entrepreneurs and Thinkers.
Iron Man Three reminds us that the Dream doesn’t have to result in destruction and alienation of the other. Sometimes, the Dream leads you to understand the Other better. As Tony met Yinsen, his fraternal tinkerer in Iron Man (and Iron Man Three), and saw beyond the imagery displayed by the Mandarin and his sideshow. The Dream is a force that advances us towards moments of good intentions, compromises, and destructions. It is a natural strength to individuals that pushes them towards greater things. It is an amoral force that can destroy as much as it creates. Alienates, as much as it discovers.
They all start with the dream of something that is beyond themselves. The reason Tony is better than his demons is because he understands how much his demons are of his own making. Tony is the embodiment of the Dream. Not the American Dream we often hear about. The human dream of building something new. Discovering something else. Breaking new boundaries. Transcending the frontier of space, and human capabilities. Shane Black built this movie with the intent of reminding you why you love Iron Man. The Dream that provokes, and often leads us to meet the Other in disastrous or wonderful ways.
The reason Iron Man’s path sees him always repeating the same mistakes is because Tony Stark is always trying to come back to the dream of building himself a better suit. The Dream of his inspiration shows him the blueprint for new and fantastic stuff. The one that shows him that the aliens that are coming back. The Dream (in other words, the Western Gaze) is always the driving force that will drive him to break new ground, and make things and people collapse in his path. In Iron Man Three, the Dream is replaced, for several veterans and for Tony, with PTSD. Akin to a persistent image on the retina – the wormhole – that won’t leave him alone, fear has become the driving force that will ultimately lead him to build and army of drones in Avengers: Age of Ultron.
That’s where Maya’s role is essential. Her whole aim is to grow back what was lost. To gain back the Dream. To close our eyes again once we’ve been proven horribly wrong. To erase this persistent image that has been imprinted on our retina forever. The reason the idea of a missing limb is so scary, besides the obvious impairment it brings to people experiencing it in their everyday life, is because of the alienation they suffer from it. From themselves, and their own mental image. The Extremis veterans embody the Dream gone to waste, and the destruction of what we think the Dream is. To Aldrich, they are the broken American fortune cookies, carrying empty philosophies, easy to break once they’ve served their purpose. Once you’ve lost the ability to see the unaltered Dream, and you lose a limb, you can never grow it back. Or maybe you lose the ability to sleep at night, or the ideals of your rightful mission. All you keep is he addiction to trying to bring it back. Maya’s pure dream has been corrupted. The power of AIM is to take something and label it to fit their agenda. It’s “Iron Patriot”. It’s “Evil Mandarin”. It’s “The War on Terror”. It’s AIM. Without the original aim.
Because we are visiting a comic book world, limbs may grow back. Friends who were victims of explosions can get better while watching Downton Abbey, and the Dream will ultimately start to make sense again. Tony will fix his girlfriend and himself. By saying “I am Iron Man”, he has the ability to maintain his personhood, and go back to the way things were when the Dream was still intact. And Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder can disappear after a good night’s sleep. He may build himself faster, stronger, more powerful suits. But thanks to Shane Black and Joss Whedon, the same causes have the same consequences. Maybe the new generation with a potato gun will get it right?
The reason I love Iron Man Three, beyond the always wonderful acting, the clever action sequences, and the trademark Shane Black Christmas vibe, is because this movie feels true to the core of the Dream of a mechanic/tinkerer that discovered a new source of energy and light, but can’t shy away from the shadow it creates. It’s a damn fun time at the movies, but also one of the most subversive takes on American imperialism. Iron Man Three is the official first installment to the wonderful and surprising trinity of de-colonialist Marvel movies featuring Thor: Ragnarock and Black Panther.