With the release of Iron Man 3, the world finally will witness the Mandarin’s film debut. A close look at the history of the character reveals a character of contradictions. The Mandarin has been an honorable thug, a mystic who uses advanced technology, and a character that, at certain times, is a great modern antagonist, and at others, is a reminder of the borderline (arguably unintentional) racism that once ran rampant in comics. The character of the Mandarin stands as a testament to today’s creators’ abilities to take a once cringe-worthy racial caricature and create a nuanced villain for the modern age. Before Ben Kingsley puts on the ten rings, let us take a look at the history of the Mandarin!
First appearing in 1964 in Tales of Suspense #50, the Mandarin seemed like just another communist for Iron Man to face. Created by Stan Lee and Don Heck, the Mandarin followed the likes of the Crimson Dynamo, the Titanium Man, and the Black Widow as red menace threats to Tony Stark and capitalism. What set the Mandarin apart from his Iron Curtain brethren was his unique origins. From the earliest stories, it was clear that the Mandarin was a megalomaniacal, political manipulator with a deep skill in the fighting arts, yet Lee chose to take these concrete elements and combine them with, not only a sense of Eastern mysticism, but with a science fiction edge, as well. The Mandarin was powered through the super technology of ten alien rings. Ten rings that would serve as symbolic representation of Mandarin’s evil for decades to come.
The Mandarin began as a mustache twirling Asian that served as a counterpoint to Western philosophy and morality. He was the Fu Manchu of the Marvel Universe rendered in startling tones of ochre meant to represent the bronze skin of an Asian. Soon though, the Mandarin would set himself apart from being a racist caricature. With his origin steeped in historical Chinese drama, Mandarin’s motivations were rich and deeply thought out. The Mandarin was a descendant of Genghis Khan and the son of one of pre-Communist China’s wealthiest men, while his mother was an English noblewoman. After they died in the Revolution, the Mandarin was raised by his embittered Aunt. He spent his vast fortune educating himself in science and technology and was evicted from his ancestral home. Swearing revenge, Mandarin wandered the countryside until he stumbled upon the starship of Axonn-Carr. He studied and mastered the ship’s technology and stole the ten rings, which were originally used as power sources for the ship’s engine. With the unearthly technology at his disposal, the Mandarin allowed the Communist Government to employ him in their efforts to topple the West, but he saw worldly conflict and politics as beneath him and never bowed down to the Red government of China. His position as China’s aloof defender brought him into conflict with Tony Stark and the Avengers. The earliest Mandarin stories cast the villain as almost the anti-Stark, a gifted genius who uses his technological might to feed his own ego, but with the unfair boost provided by the alien rings that he did not invent.
Mandarin’s origins had a racial sensitivity to it, as he rejected his own nation and chose to worship at the altar of his own narcissism. By doing this, Stan Lee separated the Mandarin from his people, making him evil without stigmatizing his race. He was not just another commie menace, he was beyond the politics of the real world, and used his stolen alien tech to raise a flag to his own ego. Unfortunately, his appearance, consisting of yellow skin, almond eyes, and Eastern style mustache harkened back to turn-of-the-century xenophobic fears, and bordered on racist caricature. Instead of seeing a rich sci-fi inspired Bond-esque villain, readers saw a yellow skinned stereotype. This is something Marvel would struggle with for decades, and it can be speculated as to why the Mandarin was not the villain of the first Iron Man film.
After his struggles with the Avengers, Mandarin turned his attention to the Hulk and the Inhumans. Upon his return to China, the Mandarin found his castle occupied by the villain the Yellow Claw (another yellow-skinned walking stereotype) and yeah, the whole racism issue did not get better. The Yellow Claw actually was able to kill the Mandarin, but the Mandarin used his rings to transfer his consciousness into the body of the Claw’s servant. With Iron Man and Sunfire caught in the middle, the two Asian villains waged a war for control of Mandarin’s domain. With his new body, Mandarin’s schemes brought him into frequent conflict with Iron Man and his allies.
The Mandarin was always considered Tony Stark’s greatest foe, but he also played an important role in X-Men history as well. After a prolonged conflict with James Rhodes and Tony Stark, the Mandarin found himself leading the the Hand. At this time, Betsy Braddock was cast through a mystic gateway called the Siege Perilous. This gateway would take anyone to their deepest desire. The mutant Betsy Braddock, aka Psylocke, wished to be feared and to become a master combatant after she was attacked by Sabertooth. The gateway took Betsy to Japan. Matsu’o Tsurayaba found Betsy and felt her body would be the perfect vessel for the mind of his comatose ninja assassin love (because comics are awesome) Kwannon. Matsu’o took Betsy to the Mandarin to make the switch. Betsy awoke in Kwannon’s body and believed herself to be Lady Mandarin until she was rescued by Wolverine and Jubilee. So, Mandarin was instrumental in giving Psylocke her iconic Asian form, something for which cosplayers and ogling fanboys will be eternally grateful for.
With the loss of Psylocke, Mandarin left the Hand, and set his sights on Iron Man once again. Using Fin Fang Foom and eight other dragons, Mandarin fought Iron Man in one of their greatest battles. This struggle also saw the return of the alien race that forged Mandarin’s rings. The aliens wanted their stolen rings back. Desperate, the Mandarin battled Iron Man and the aliens with the dragons, Iron Man combined his own power with the rings: destroying them, exiling the dragons, and vaporizing Mandarin’s hands. The Mandarin was nursed back to health by a kindly woman and was able to regrow his hands, which somehow regenerated as dragon claws (because nothing says racial sensitivity like an Asian villain with dragon claws). The Fin Fang Foom storyline was one of the more well received Iron Man arcs of the era, but like many Mandarin stories over the decades it was two steps forward, three steps back. Thankfully, the claws would soon be forgotten as the Mandarin was defeated by Iron Man and Force Works and was soon shunted off into the Heroes Reborn Universe.
As Joe Quesada and the modern creators of Marvel took over, many classic characters received modern re-imaginings. With ten years between appearances, it was time to reexamine the Mandarin from this new Marvel perspective. Before Mandarin returned, Iron Man struggled with Temujin, the son of the Mandarin. Temugin’s tale began when he received a package in the mail containing the severed hands of his father. Donning the rings, Temujin swore to destroy Iron Man and avenge his father. Temugin was defeated and soon learned to respect Iron Man and swore off evil. He seemingly lost the rings to a cadre of villains including the Spot and Puma. Good job, kid.
After Temujin, it was time for Marvel to bring the original Mandarin back. Marvel stripped Mandarin of his yellow peril trappings, and while there was still an air of Eastern mysticism and mystery around the character, the Mandarin was just as likely to appear wearing a business suit as a Fu Manchu robe. The Mandarin was now an international terrorist, a manipulator of prejudices and politics. After Temugin reformed, the Mandarin escaped a Chinese prison and undergoes a process by which his rings are fused to his spine, truly making him an extension of unknown technology. This new Mandarin joins with Extremis creator Maya Hansen to weaponize and spread the Extremis virus. Unlike the first Extremis story by Warren Ellis, the movie will feature the Mandarin as being responsible for the Extremis virus; perhaps the film will be a combination of the original Extremis story and the Mandarin’s plot?
Matt Fraction then used Mandarin as the antagonist of his final Iron Man story arc. Fraction presents “The Story of My Life” in Invincible Iron Man Annual #1. This annual shows that Mandarin’s former life has been a well-orchestrated lie to cover his true nature. I won’t spoil it here, but the annual acts as a Rosetta stone for Fraction’s already legendary run and the Mandarin’s past and present motivations. It will be interesting to see how much the film will borrow from this story or if it will go in the direction of Stan Lee’s original origin.
Despite all the attention given to making the Mandarin’s background and motivations as rich as possible the fact remains that a robed, mustached Chinese villain would come off as an uncomfortable historical reminder of the marginalization of Chinese people. Iron Man 3 director Shane Black and Marvel seemingly solved this problem by not making the Mandarin Chinese. Ben Kingsley is of Indian descent, and changing Mandarin’s race gets rid of some of the racial stigma. The Mandarin is now a mysterious foreign threat, bedecked in robes, rings, and terror, but he is no longer a Fu Manchu/Yellow Claw knockoff.
In the first Iron man film, Jon Favreau named the terrorist organization that kidnapped Tony Stark the Ten Rings. This acknowledged the existence of the Mandarin and set things up for future filmmakers to finally bring the ringed menace to the big screen. Now, As Mandarin gets the spotlight this summer as the lead baddie in Iron Man 3, remember how far the character has come. From the early days of Tales of Suspense, where Stan Lee carefully crafted a unique back story, transforming Mandarin into Iron Man’s greatest foe. From taking on the Hulk to transforming Betsy Braddock into the Psylocke we all know and love, from forming an alliance with Fin Fang Foom to melding his own rings to his spine, the Mandarin has added a sense of memorable menace to Tony Stark’s world. With Ben Kingsley donning the rings, this menace is about to be turned up a few decibels.