A funny thing happened over the weekend: $175 million worth of people saw Iron Man 3 and a lot of longtime Marvel fans left the theater unhappy. Why?
About halfway through the film, Tony Stark learns that the Mandarin, the supervillain who has been making his life a living hell, isn't real. He's a bumbling, substance-addicted actor named Trevor, hired by Guy Pearce's Aldrich Killian to be a distraction from what's really going on. It's a huge twist, something that Marvel managed to keep entirely out of the marketing for the film in every way. Many viewers have argued that this twist completely deflates the movie, removing a potentially great villain from the film and tarnishing the legacy of one of Iron Man's most infamous nemeses from the pages of the comics.
Actually, it's this twist that makes the Mandarin one of the best and smartest comic book villains since, well, ever.
Let's sidestep the fact that the Mandarin is an awful villain on paper, a "yellow peril" Asian stereotype that may have been passable in the '60s but is wildly offensive today. Let's just accept that the character had to be completely and totally reconfigured for the modern era. What cowriter/director Shane Black and actor Ben Kingsley do is completely disarming and hilarious: they re-create him as the "Ultimate Supervillain." They make him a bad guy so over-the-top, silly and preposterous that of course he's a figment of the real threat's imagination. How do you quietly get away with doing evil? You simply create the perfect fake bad guy.
Iron Man 3 paints Aldrich Killian, the real villain of the movie, as being a media-savvy guy, a mastermind who knows how to divert the attention of the masses. He's like a movie producer -- he has a flair for the dramatic. For the first half of Iron Man 3, Kingsley's take on the Mandarin is actually pretty mysterious and chilling, but when Tony discovers the truth and the jig is up, the character's mystique deflates instantly.
But that's the point!
What do you need to create the ultimate bad guy? A complex wardrobe. A funny voice. A "master plan" that doesn't really make sense. It's easy to imagine Killian watching and taking notes from The Dark Knight Rises' Bane, seeing what the villains in superhero movies actually act like before creating his own. Heck, the Mandarin's whole "Super Osama bin Laden" schtick feels like something that was specifically focus-tested to frighten Americans. In short: the Mandarin isn't a great villain because he's actually a true threat. He's a great villain because he's a product, a goofy and dramatic boogeyman created by the real bad guy to allow him to work in the shadows, letting him continue to conduct traumatic experiments on wounded war veterans. For those who think Iron Man 3 is too goofy, let that sink in for a moment. That's one of the most chilling concepts ever created for a comic book movie.
And for comic book purists, it's not like the Mandarin doesn't actually exist. Kingsley's outing as a bumbling actor doesn't mean the threat isn't a real thing. All it does is increase the impact of the real lead villain, Aldrich Killian, who, as he says himself, is actually the Mandarin.
Let's talk about Killian/the real Mandarin. We know that he's the kind of guy whose experiments are turning vets into human bombs and randomly killing people around the country. We know that he's planning to privatize and control both terrorism and the government, creating constant supply and demand for his corporate interests. We know that he has a chip on his shoulder the size of a planet. We know that Guy Pearce plays him with the over-the-top menace of a classic '80s action-movie villain. We know that he has superpowers from his Extremis technology and can breathe fire (!). Most importantly, we know that he's the dark side of Tony himself, a monster our hero created a decade ago. We know that he's become a war profiteer, the one thing Tony has dedicated his life to never being.
In other words, the real Mandarin isn't the supervillain figurehead with the wacky wardrobe and the bizarre voice. He's something far more real and thematically satisfying. Pearce's performance may chew on the scenery, but his character's motivations are as down to earth and selfish as anything we've seen in the Marvel movie universe. He's a bad guy so smart that he creates a satire of an actual villain to take the blame for his crimes.
Now that's an amazing bad guy.