‘Iron Man 3’: The Mandarin’s origins explained!

Ben Kingsley as the Mandarin in 'Iron Man 3'
Ben Kingsley as the Mandarin in 'Iron Man 3'

In the comic books, Iron Man archenemy the Mandarin is Chinese. And when Ben Kingsley -- who decidedly doesn't fit that racial profile -- was cast in the villainous role for “Iron Man 3,” there was naturally concern over how the character would be portrayed and whether it would be offensive.

So we went straight to the movie masterminds to get the inside information on the Mandarin.

“His nationality is not even clear because he is shrouded in secrecy,” “Iron Man 3” co-writer and director Shane Black told Yahoo! Movies. “He has crafted himself in the manner of the Mandarin, of a warlord. And I think that’s great because you get to do the comic book but you don’t… have to deal with the specifics of Fu Manchu stereotyping.

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“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.”

For some “Iron Man” mavens, the Mandarin’s appearance is a long time coming. Producer Kevin Feige recalled that he was promised to appear in the film’s first installment by then-helmer Jon Favreau – during a Comic Con panel nearly six years ago.

“We thought, ‘What can we tell ‘em? That’s probably safe!’ And then we changed it about 12 weeks before we start filming,” explained Feige. But there was simply too much going on in the script. Favreau and Feige wanted to put more focus on Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.)

“So we took him [The Mandarin] out. And we talked about him again for ‘Iron Man 2,’” Feige continued. Alas, the Mandarin didn’t make into that one either. And Feige credits Black with providing the right set of circumstances to bring him and his handful of 10 mystical rings on board for “IM3.”

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The two filmmakers envisioned the Mandarin as an “entity that is right off the bat … recognizable and is frightening and is fearful in a very sort of ripped from the headlines, Osama bin Laden kind of way,” Feige said, adding that Black also found inspiration for Kingsley’s character in Marlon Brando’s Colonel Kurtz in “Apocalypse Now.”

“Was he a guy who has gone off the reservation, who is incorporating all of these different symbols and iconography into his world view?” Feige posed.

“Yeah, he has an intelligence background,” added Black. “He was probably a supervisor of atrocities in his time, whenever it was.

“At some point this field officer went nuts and became a student of warfare and ancient Chinese symbology and drew from from South American insurgency tactics and has created around himself this little world of warfare, the only unifying principle of which seems to be a hatred of the United States. And so he represents every terrorist in a way.”

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As for Stark, we know things become pretty dark for him in this upcoming “Iron Man” installment but we can now assure you, they don’t get dire.

“Well I’m not going to kill him,” Black said, adding that Stark’s appearance in upcoming “Avengers” installments didn’t drive the writer-director’s decision to let him live. “I don’t worry about ‘The Avengers.’ That’s their problem then to find one that feels like number four that’s the biggest thing that ever happened.”

"Iron Man 3"enters theaters May 3.

Matthew McDaniel contributed to this report.

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