Earlier this month I posted about the Lady Mandarin story, noting that the Mandarin himself would be appearing in Iron Man 3. I couldn't quite see how that was going to work, but didn't lambaste them for doing that because I always like to criticise from a position of knowledge.
I am very glad I held fire.
So, let's talk about it. The way people were coming out of the theatre saying it wasn't orientalist at all but they couldn't talk about it gave me an idea of the shape of the twist.
The idea that I'd already had was that Ben Kingsley's character would not call himself the Mandarin, and that name would be either not used at all, or be bestowed on him by the media. That's what they did with Obadiah Stane/Iron Manger, after all. The problem with this, though, is that the Mandarin is the comics character's only name: there's no Earth name for him to go by. They'd have to make something up. I didn't think that likely, and that's hardly a twist worthy of a spoiler warning.
So, here I am watching the film carefully. Noting the lack of actual cutaways to the Mandarin: we saw footage edited together, but always presented as broadcasts. Then, when we do get the cutaways, noting the obviousness of the Mandarin's surrounds being a studio - we even see his teleprompter.
And then we meet Trevor Slattery. I was a little ahead of them - figuring out that the Mandarin was a front man hired to claim responsibility for Extremis malfunctions - but not by much more than a literate audience was supposed to be. And then the film - already quite good - took a step up to be damn good.
I'm told, though I haven't seen it, that some people identifying as comics fans have been very disappointed with what they did with the Mandarin. Did these people seriously expect a sub-Fu Manchu caricature that should have been embarrassing even in the 1960s in a film that Disney are hoping will do quite well in China?
This Mandarin is a composite of multiple figures (he has, for example, Warren Ellis's beard) but most strongly resembles Osama Bin Laden. Or rather, resembles Osama Bin Laden's public persona. Bin Laden initially denied doing 9/11. And you know what, I believed him, in the sense of him having direct personal responsibility. Al Qaeda is not the type of terrorist organisation the west is used to facing, it's not hierarchical in the same way as say the IRA, which has set itself up as an army. Al Qaeda does not have committee meetings with apologies for absence, as I imagine the IRA Army Council doing. Instead, that structure was imposed onto Al Qaeda and Bin Laden's retinue by a western security apparatus desperate to get a scalp that could be sold to the people as sufficient revenge. And after several years of manhunt for him he decided he might as well take credit. Whether or not it's true (and I'm not now saying it isn't) is frankly irrelevant. Bin Laden was blamed because we had to find someone with ultimate command responsibility and that had to be someone with something of a public persona.
Enter the Mandarin. Killian knows exactly how this works. He and AIM can stay in the shadows while he leads the US government on a fruitless search for terrorists who have a better hiding place than the Pakistan/Afghan border - that of not even existing. This is a rejection of one of Iron Man's flaws. Iron Man used this imagery of generic foreign terrorists allying with a US domestic villain without the slighest bit of irony (one of its two main flaws alongside a lacklustre third act boss fight.) Iron Man 3 rejects this as ridiculous, a scenario that plays well in the American media but has no underlying basis in reality and falls apart on even the slightest investigation. It also shows more directly the problem with drone strikes - that all the accuracy in the world is no good if you don't have the intel. And there's that bit about the Vice President - I'm sure that's some kind of commentary on something, but I can't quite put my finger on it.
So, Iron Man 3 blasts the political naïveté of Iron Man. It provides the savage criticism of the theatre that is the War on Terror that has been wanting for ten years of action films. Yet it manages all this while being fun and engaging, having a third act that wasn't just a tedious slug-out, and passing the Bechdel test. And almost as an afterthought it demonstrates that you can do a film which is "just" a superhero having an adventure, without an origin story or large existential threat (Happy and Tony go looking for trouble, they find it.) That this is a genre in which you can tell stories about other things (something The Dark Knight Rises, for example, tried and failed at). Well done that Shane Black and Drew Pearce.