It feels like ages ago, but build-up to 2013’s Marvel Cinematic Universe sequel film Iron Man 3 was feverish, especially after trailers unveiled the knighted, Oscar-winning Gandhi and Sexy Beast actor Ben Kingsley decked out in sinful fineries and familiar ten-fingered bling as the ethnically re-contextualized movie version of Iron Man’s best-known comic book nemesis the Mandarin. However, in a move that rendered the film divisive, director/co-writer Shane Black had something more obliquely original in mind for the villain; something he remains unrepentant about to this very day. Now, he fully explains why.
In an interview with IGN, Black, amidst blowback from his “twist” regarding Ben Kingsley’s status as the actual Mandarin, remains recalcitrant over his creative decision and maintains that he would even do it again. The “twist,” of course, revealed that Kingsley’s scary-video-submitting terrorist “Mandarin” was actually a meek, medicated, over-sexed has-been actor named Trevor Slattery; a pawn of Guy Pearce’s nanotechnology-developing scientist Aldrich Killian, the actual Mandarin behind the proverbial curtain.
Black implies that his choice to make Mandarin a concept rather than an actual person was emboldened by the comic-book-deviating villain approach of Jon Favreau’s predecessor picture Iron Man 2 with Mickey Rourke’s Anton Vanko (an amalgam of Iron Man comic book villains Whiplash and Crimson Dynamo), stating:
” We had this think tank – A.I.M. – from the comics and ‘OK, what if this was a cobbled together sort of boogeyman?’ That they’d researched – they actually had data spit out about the various things that people would find frightening and they would concoct from this. This sort of straw man terrorist. This paper tiger. And then push him on the internet.”
Adding, “I thought that felt modern, it felt interesting, it felt textured. I thought to myself, ‘Hey Whiplash in Iron Man 2 – he doesn’t look like Whiplash in the comics, people like it when you trade up and kind of shake it up a little.’ And the truth is people did – I mean we made a lot of money with the movie, but there is a hardcore niche of fandom that was genuinely disappointed; they wanted to see their version. And for that I feel bad. I still like the choice we made.”
While viewed as a separate work in its own light, Black’s strategy with the Iron Man 3 big bad might have been seen as a clever allegory about both the self-induced effects of mass paranoia and the protean power of the military industrial complex. However, while toy-minded studio meddling allegedly altered the identity of the secret villain from being Rebecca Hall’s Maya Hansen, the crucial mistake (at least, in the eyes of detractors,) was that Black chose to use the Mandarin, of all villains, for this “textured,” borderline avant-garde approach. In the lore of Marvel comics, Mandarin is THE Iron Man villain; the proverbial Joker to Iron Man’s Batman. Thus, while his concept was clever, the usage of the Mandarin for this cinematic experiment was not only seen as sacrilege, but a broken promise after the hype seemed to make fans believe Kingsley’s villainous role would be a sublime Heath Ledger/Joker-level turn.
Nevertheless, Black believes that the ability of the Mandarin twist to completely throw off the speculations and prospective leaks of the Internet news age was something that he considers an accomplishment for Iron Man 3. He has a point in that regard and many moviegoers (even those off-put by the twist,) will agree that the dramatic substance of the $1.2 billion global hit was solid and layered, effectively elevating the arc of Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark/Iron Man. As Black explains:
“We may have done our job a bit too well in a way because we succeeded in actually having a surprise in the middle of a big summer movie where you normally know virtually everything about it before you go in. And when I say we did our job too well it meant some of the fans felt fooled. They felt I think that they’d been led down one path and then sold a bill of goods. It’s hard. Because I want to please the fans… but in this case I thought and we all thought that it was just a very interesting and very layered decision to take the Mandarin [in].”
However, Marvel Studios weren’t quite as adamant about having Slattery/Mandarin remain a canonical concept. Thus, the subsequent early-2014 Blu-ray/DVD release of 2013’s Thor: The Dark World included a short film called All Hail the King, which saw Kingsley reprising his role as an incarcerated Trevor Slattery, who, after a documentary interview, is absconded away by representatives of the Mandarin’s apparently non-fictional “10 Rings” terrorist organization at the behest of the “real” Mandarin. Like the fans, this mysterious mastermind was angry with Slattery’s pilfering of his identity. Yet, despite being overruled, Black takes the public relations fiasco of the Iron Man 3 Mandarin twist as an instance where he stuck to his principles, or, to paraphrase a comic-adapted quote in Captain America: Civil War, plant himself like a tree, look fanboys in the eye and say, “no, you move.” As he states:
“The minute you start to govern your creative impulses based on anticipation of someone else’s response or their expectations then you’re going to fail. You’re going to fail them too. Because you’re not going to surprise anybody – you’re going to be busy second-guessing what other people want and indulging that people-pleasing side of yourself.”
For now, Black will take those lessons with him, focusing his directorial talents on a collection of non-Marvel movies with a reboot of the franchise whose 1987 debut saw him disemboweled onscreen in The Predator and the Dwayne Johnson-headlining adaptation of the classic bronze-skinned comic book hero Doc Savage.