The Iron Man and the Yellow Face (spoilers for Iron Man III. You’ve been warned)

When I heard Ben Kingsley would be playing the Mandarin in Iron Man III, I was peeved.
Here we have a movie featuring Iron Man’s archenemy, one of Marvel’s most prominent Asian characters (though a very stereotypical one), and he’s being played by a white guy. Sure, Kingsley is awesome, but there are awesome Chinese actors out there. Why not use one for a Chinese villain and maybe work on making him a little less of a “sinister oriental” stereotype?
As it turns out, because the Mandarin is a scam. Guy Pearce is the real villain, the leader of AIM (a criminal cartel in the comics, here a high-tech corporation) who’s developed a method for turning humans into living bombs. When they carry out a terrorist attack, there’s no recognizable bomb parts left to track it back (Law and the Multiverse discusses the legality of the “Extremis” treatment here and other Iron Man-related topics).
The Mandarin is just a front Pearce uses for a series of terrorist attacks culminating in the murder of the president, after which Pearce’s ally, the VP, will take the White House. When Tony Stark confronts the Mandarin, he turns out to be a drug-addled British actor who doesn’t quite grasp that real people are getting shot in tandem with his televised statements (which freaks out some conservatives for not presenting a truly scary terrorist and showing the real villain as an American). And Kingsley’s performance as the actor is glorious.
So given that plot, I can see why they weren’t worried about casting a Chinese actor … but then again, why not cast a Chinese actor?
The standard response is that “race shouldn’t matter. It should be the best actor” but that rarely works the other way: Minority actors are much less likely to get cast in a role that isn’t specifically written as Asian. And there’s a long history of Asian roles being played by white guys: Fu Manchu and Charlie Chan have never been played by an Asian, and actors as Caucasian as Katherine Hepburn, Alec Guinness and Mickey Rooney (Dragon Seed, Passage to India and Breakfast at Tiffany‘s respectively) have been cast in Eastern roles (more recently Prince of Persia and Avatar the Last Airbender have Asian leads played by white guys). So yeah, turning a prominent Asian villain into a white guy still bugs me (but not, obviously, enough to stop me seeing it)
(Cover art by Jack Kirby, all rights with current holder)


Filed under Comics, Movies

3 responses to “The Iron Man and the Yellow Face (spoilers for Iron Man III. You’ve been warned)

  1. Mister Andersen

    Point of order: While he can pass, Ben Kingsley isn’t white. He was born Krishna Pandit Bhanji to a caucasian mother and a Kenyan-born Muslim Indian father from the same ethnic group as Mohandas Gandhi (whom Kingsley has at one point portrayed).

    The shift away from the character’s problematic Yellow Peril origins to the somewhat more acceptible (brown) spectre of radicalised Islam began all the way back in the first movie. The terrorists responsible for Stark’s abduction are the Ten Rings, specifically named for the Mandarin’s signature fashion statement. There logo appear again in IM#3, though whether AIM was responsible for the group’s creation as part of its shadow government methodology or simply appropriated a conveniently defunct group to attach its puppet too isn’t made clear.

    Within in that context however, you’re absolutely correct that the Mandarin could still easily have been portrayed by an asian actor. Leaving aside the possibility of the sort of Road to Damascus conversion the media like to play up when western citizens become radicalised islamists, both the former Soviet Union and China have ethnically asian muslim minority populations subject to the sort of oppression a number of organisations like to use as the basis of recruitment.

    The swap here irritatingly echoes Nolan’s revision of Ra’s al Ghul, in which a character of colour who is a major threat to the hero — with Batman, the middle eastern became asian, here the other way around — becomes nothing more than a rich white man’s puppet.

  2. frasersherman

    I don’t think I knew that about Kingsley, thanks. I remembered the Ten Rings but I missed the visual link in IM3–I imagine if they were really trying to tie it all together they’d have been more explicit.
    Good point about Ra’s.

  3. Pingback: Charlie Chan’s Secret (1936) – [Public Domain Movie] | mostly music

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