by Yining Su
The newest Iron Man 3 trailer is out, featuring Ben Kingsley as the Mandarin, one of Iron Man’s best known enemies from the comic books.
The film raises several interesting issues about Hollywood, China, and race.
First, there is the concern that casting Kingsley as a character called the Mandarin is an example of Hollywood whitewashing or “racebending”, in the vein of Avatar: the Last Airbender or Dragonball: Evolution, films which cast white actors as characters who were Asian in cartoons and comics.
The second issues is that the Mandarin has traditionally been a racist stereotype, a rip-off of Fu Manchu, introduced in the comics in the 1960s as a perfect mix of Yellow Peril-fear mongering and Communist red-baiting.
Lastly, there’s the fact that China’s notoriously thin-skinned film censors will have a say in the film’s content, as it is a Chinese co-production and was partially filmed in Beijing.
The film’s director and co-writer, Shane Black, has tried to soothe concerns about the racist potential of featuring the Mandarin and casting Kingsley in the role. In an interview with Yahoo! Movies, Black explained that:
[The Mandarin’s] nationality is not even clear because he is shrouded in secrecy… We’re not saying he’s Chinese, we’re saying he, in fact, draws a cloak around him of Chinese symbols and dragons because it represents his obsessions with Sun Tzu in various ancient arts of warfare that he studied.
Perhaps the choice to avoid the racist Chinese-stereotype side of the character was just a matter of good taste. After all, the fact that he is Iron Man’s most famous villain but has never appeared in the films suggests that filmmakers were hesitant about including such a problematic character. When the first Iron Man was released, its director, Jon Favreau, explained the decision not to include the Mandarin to Superhero Hype by saying “we really didn’t know what to do with him and it seemed too ambitious in the first one.”
But as Iron Man 3 is a co-production between Marvel Studios, Walt Disney China, and the Beijing-based DMG Entertainment, which also co-produced Looper, questions about the role of Chinese censors have been raised.
Co-productions with Chinese companies are an easy way for Hollywood to bypass China’s import restrictions on foreign films and gain access to the Chinese film market, now the second-largest in the world. But films that receive funding from Chinese companies have to include Chinese elements, and meet the approval of SARFT, the State Administration of Radio, Film, and Television.
According to the New York Times, Chinese bureaucrats were present on the Beijing set of Iron Man 3 and were “asked to advise on creative decisions”.
Whether or not the co-production deal had any influence on the film’s depiction of the Mandarin, moviegoers will likely feel China’s influence in the film in other ways. Veteran Chinese actor Wang Xuequi will appear in the film as Dr. Wu, a character created for the film. Dr. Wu will likely be an ally of Iron Man’s.