Iron Man 3 was a fun comic book film. I find myself in a strange minority, however, in that I feel that it was definitely the weakest of the four Iron Man films to date [1]. I can forgive the fact that Guy Pearce's character is a shallow, two-dimensional hack that seems cloned from the exact same cloth as Jim Carrey's Edward Nigma portrayal. I can forgive the fact that using the acronym AIM, Pearce's Killian didn't actually seem to have one. I can forgive the meandering plot line where it seemed like Killian could never make up his mind whether he was attempting to capture Tony Stark or kill Tony Stark.

What I have a hard time forgiving is how little respect The Mandarin gets in this film. I'm disappointed in how the film wastes foreshadowing and bread crumbs about Ten Rings and The Mandarin from Favreau's films. [2] But before you dismiss this as comic fan complaints, let me point out that I had rather low expectations going in. Like most of my comic knowledge, my knowledge of Iron Man was forged by 90s cartoons (in this case the sometime execrable Iron Man Adventures) and polished with video games, with internet web sites and Wikipedia filling in many of the gaps.

I mostly just want one more scene, or a simple short film, to redeem The Mandarin in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But I think the real Mandarin would have been a much more interesting foil for Tony Stark in this movie.

Yes, The Mandarin Is Racist

To get it out of the way, I completely realize and agree that The Mandarin [3] is racist in all of his incarnations. One of the things I appreciated about the film was the hints that this racism might be an intentional masque put on by the (not so, in this case) super villain. Compared to wanting unlimited power, destroying lots of property, and killing lots of innocents, racism seems like a strange misdemeanor. I realize that cartoon violence and racism are very different things and I realize that no one should condone racism of any sort.

I think the only further redemptive I've had to combat the racism is to play up the "advisor to the king" and have the character just use every word under the Sun that means a similar thing (like Vizier, Advisor, what have you). That could play up the worminess [4] of the character.

But I'm not sure there would be any easy answers. The Mandarin is from a deep, strange, old pulp fiction racism vein, and maybe there aren't any easy answers, but I think in some ways Iron Man 3 over-corrected by clipping The Mandarin's wings.

One More Scene

I was almost surprised that as the credits rolled there wasn't just one more scene to redeem the film's version of the character. This scene seemed so obvious to me in the theater, and maybe this is the sort of thing that could be attached to the Blu-Ray or to some other MCU venture:

SHIELD agent flips through a video of a TREVOR's shooting the Roxxon executive. Trevor is slumped in an interrogation chair as the agent silently collects his thoughts. The tape shows Trevor in front of a green screen, holding an obviously prop gun, and no actual person at his feet. (The audience is rightfully suspicious given hints earlier in the film that it is in fact this green screen footage that is the fake, doctored.) The SHIELD agent sighs, "We're sorry Trevor for taking so long. It seems fairly clear that you were a patsy in all of this and you are free to go. Just don't leave the country any time soon." With this the Agent leaves the room, the door wide open.

Trevor stands straight up. Makes a show of pulling out ten impressively shiny rings from his pockets. Places them one-by-one onto his fingers, and then grins a feral grin. This clearly, is the real Mandarin, as he twists a ring to open a magic portal to some other location, such as one of his bases in Afghanistan. He will speak to some henchman about how he fooled all them, including Killian, but particularly that Tony Stark. Evil laugh, fade to black.

The Real Mandarin Would Have Been Better For the Story

So the real A plot in Iron Man 3 is about Tony Stark trying to cope with the events of The Avengers. But as cool and cosmic as all of that was, it is ultimately something familiar to Tony Stark: He and Dr. Banner together were studying the technical background of the Cosmic Cube, and following in the research of SHIELD and Dr. Skarsgaard.

Tony had the tools to cope with the films "Extremis", as well, as a technological artifact that he could study and learn. After all, he figured out quite a bit about it in just a one night stand.

The Mandarin has served as such a long time arch nemesis to Tony Stark precisely because he A) loves stealing Tony's technology, and more interestingly B) does not actually rely on technology. The Mandarin uses his (ten) rings for most of his power, and those rings are most decidedly ancient, and very much magic. Should Tony try to learn more about them he would be confounded. Real magic could do well to have further shook Tony Stark's psyche and force him to confront (at least briefly) that the universe is a lot bigger than his ego.

That would have been a great movie to watch. Science versus actual magic. (Science wins, of course. Always.) Rather than the science versus more tepid psuedo-science that might as well be magic that IM3 served up, there would be room left for Tony to debate the things he was seeing (with his own eyes) and try to figure out how Thor and cosmic wormholes and super villains with ancient magic fit into his world, then determinedly decide to take a stand...

The Real Mandarin Would Have Been Better for the MCU

Clearly, magic is something of a bad word in draft situations in the MCU. Marvel and many of its writers and directors want to mostly avoid magic. Even the Marvel Norse Gods got a bit softened with the cop-out of "super advanced technology", but that's somewhat expected from the comics, and magic in general can be painted with that brush for a long time.

But let us face it: magic is a key axis in the Marvel continuity and at some point the MCU is going to have to pull that band-aid off and own that. Phase 3 hints keep talking about the possibility of a Dr. Strange film and there is pretty much no way to do Dr. Strange right without a strong ownership of the m-word. Having a strong, magic using Mandarin would ease the transition to a Dr. Strange movie in Phase 3.

Having a strong, magic super villain like The Mandarin in Iron Man 3 could have helped soften the immediate coming transition to relatively cosmic Thor 2 and super-cosmic [5] Guardians of the Galaxy as Phase 2 plays out over the next few years.

Maybe Phases 2 and 3 won't need the extra boost an Iron Man versus magic could have given them, but part of what made Phase 1 successful was how much IM1 and IM2 teased/setup SHIELD and Fury. Iron Man 3 had no real setup for anything else to come in the MCU, which seems like such wasted potential.

[1]Where The Avengers is the best Iron Man film to date and the solo trilogy follows (by cardinality). I find it fascinating how many people frown upon Iron Man 2. Sam Rockwell! World's Fair-style Science Is Awesome set pieces!
[2]Aside: Favreau's "Party Like It's 1999" mullet was unsettlingly awesome. No man should make a mullet look that good. Happy Hogan should have kept that look for more of the film.
[3]Or "Man Daren" if you prefer. (This was the term used in China, apparently. It amuses me.)
[5]Looking forward to finding out if they will go full Kirby Cosmic; but the full power of the Kirby Krackle may be too mind blowing for the MCU just yet