Re-Imagining Stereotypes: The Mandarin
Warning: Extreme spoilers below!
When I heard that Iron Man III was revamping the Mandarin, I expected the worst. The Mandarin, who first appeared in 1964, has traditionally been your standard nefarious evil genius in the style of Fu Manchu. Fu Manchu was the villain from a series of British crime novels written in the first half of the 20th century. He was the embodiment of the “yellow peril,” wrapped in the western imaginings of “the Orient” as exotic and inscrutable. The Mandarin, like Ming the Merciless, Lo Pan, and other characters that follow the Fu Manchu blueprint, has always been yet another iteration of this stereotype.
Fu Macnhu-style villains reflect the international politics of their moment of creation. The notion of the “yellow peril” emerged in the 19th century from the perceived threat posed by the Chinese laborers exploited to build the railroads. But by the early 20th century, the caricature came to represent the Japanese, as they expanded their empire across Asia, and then the Chinese, as they embraced communism at the height of the Cold War. Iron Man III reimagines The Mandarin as a reflection of the part of the “Orient” contemporary Americans see as the most threatening–South Asia, particularly Pakistan and Afghanistan, where South Asia blends into the Middle East.
In Iron Man III The Mandarin, who was originally Chinese, retains some of the elements of Fu Manchu, such as the characteristic robe, but now appears more South Asian or Middle Eastern. He makes his threats via broadcasts that resemble the kinds of communiqués we’ve come to associate with Osama bin Laden and his ilk. He deploys terrorist tactics like bombing, and the emblem shown at the beginning of each of his broadcasts features two crossed swords in the center, a design that appears vaguely Islamic to American eyes. It was immediately clear that the makers of Iron Man III had simply updated The Mandarin to reflect that the “yellow peril” is somewhat more brown these days.
I made a mental note to use this movie in future classes to teach my students Edward Saïd’s concept of Orientalism. Saïd was a pioneer in postcolonial studies and wrote of Western conceptions and distortions of the Middle East and South Asia, a phenomenon he termed Orientalism. According to Saïd, Orientalism not only constructs the East as Other, but also validates the need to colonize, invade, or otherwise militarily dominate that Other. Iron Man III had simply reimagined The Mandarin as Middle Eastern terrorist, the most resonate villain of the contemporary moment, and an image that has been used to justify U.S. military intervention in the region. (Useful teaching material is always a small silver lining to problematic media representations.)
Imagine my surprise when Tony Stark confronts The Mandarin only to find he is a bumbling actor hired to play a character and paid in drugs and prostitutes. We find that the Aldrich Killian is not working for The Mandarin, but has entirely fabricated the character to serve as the face of his own evil deeds. The Mandarin is a facile villain deliberately fashioned by Killian in the image of Middle Eastern terrorist to do what Orientalist imagery has always done, justify war. In that moment, The Mandarin became an even more perfect illustration of Saïd’s Orientalism. This incarnation of The Mandarin is a savvy critique of the very character on which is it based. He not only represents the Orientalized Other, but he is literally the creation of a Western mind tailor-made to fit American discourses and ideologies. Iron Man III depicts not just the Orientalized image of the Other, but also reveals the lie behind the image and the deeds such lies justify.