Iron Man 3 (2013) has come and gone and it still continues to be a thorn on the Marvel Cinematic Universe's (MCU) side. Over the course of the past decade or so, the MCU has succeed in entertaining millions of people with its single unified story of superhero adventures but it isn't above fucking up and the longstanding grudge a portion of the Marvel fanbase bears against Iron Man 3's depiction of its main villain, the Mandarin, is just one of the few but gaping flaws some won't forgive Marvel for making.
I've read arguments from both sides of the debate and while I see where the movie's fans are coming from, I can't view the Mandarin twist as artistic genius because to me, it's a cheap shot pulled out of the writer's ass. I could ramble aimlessly about the topic but in service of credible writing and due to a lack of alcohol, I'm going to present my side of the argument and hopefully no one will lynch me for having an opinion.
Literally in its opening minutes, Iron Man 3 introduces audiences to the Mandarin (Sir Ben Kingsley) as the MCU's equivalent of terrorist figureheads like Osama bin Laden: an otherwise normal human being who amassed a dangerous army of fanatics, known as the Ten Rings, ready to fight and die for his cause. From televised propaganda videos to fiery anti-imperialist speeches said to his gun wielding loyalists, it's easy to see why the governments of the MCU would fear this man especially now that he just turned his eyes towards the West. And to top it all off, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) just challenged him to a fight on live TV.
Even the trailers played with this, hyping up what was to be Tony Stark's darkest hour where all of his riches and armor suits won't be enough to stop a man who has no qualms about civilian casualties and cares little for human life in general. With an international conspiracy plot that would've made Tom Clancy proud alongside implied themes of maturity that reminded audiences of Christopher Nolan's groundbreaking The Dark Knight (2008), those who criticized the MCU's lack of consequence were excited to see how Tony Stark, the man with everything, would fight someone with nothing to lose in a clash of ideals that would leave everyone damaged. Marvel finally had its answer to Nolan's dark retelling of superhero lore and everyone was in for the ride.
Boy, was everyone in for a fucking disappointment.
In one of the most infamous bait and switch moves in recent memory, the Mandarin is revealed to be a character played by washout British actor Trevor Slattery. The Mandarin, as it turns out, was just a fictional persona created by Tony Stark's corporate and romantic rival Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce) as a scapegoat for his illegal activities, which included testing the volatile experimental miracle cure Extremis on American soil. By keeping the authorities distracted by the Mandarin's theatrical shows of force, Kilian was free to advance his plans for revenge against Stark and gain political power along the way.
It's also in these moments that Stark learns why Killian wants his head: In a twist of irony, Stark actually met Killian in a party set before the events of Iron Man (2006) but ignored him because the call of booty was more important than listening to an aspiring tech genius who idolized him propose truly world changing scientific breakthroughs.
Basically, Kilian was the bad guy from The Incredibles (2004). Only if he spat fire and was a fuckton lamer.
As mentioned earlier, the Mandarin twist hit the wrong buttons and the ensuing backlash forced Marvel to apologize for this massive fuck-up by means of the Marvel One-Shot All Hail the King (2014), a short film that basically retconned the cinematic Mandarin's backstory by claiming that there's a REAL Mandarin who's pissed at Trevor for his blasphemous identity theft.
So much for artistic integrity.
I'm not going to act like a purist and claim my childhood was ruined because an adaptation dared do something different from the comics and I'm in agreement with writer/director Shane Black's decision to reinvent the Mandarin who was originally a goddamned racist caricature, which is something I don't look kindly to.
What was wrong with the Mandarin twist was that Iron Man 3 represented Marvel's refusal to grow up and outgrow its established pandering kid friendly formula at the time of its release. This was Marvel's chance to finally prove critics wrong and show that their movies were both fun and engaging, where the risks were just as big as the fights. Throw in an inspired redesign of a well-known villain who now looked more like a threat than a bad racist joke and Iron Man 3 could've been great.
Instead, Iron Man 3 took a massive shit on all that potential by enticing audiences with a dramatic first half before pulling the rug to reveal a joke filled second half that contradicted the tone of the opening acts. The moment Iron Man crashed in Toronto and teamed up with a kid for whimsical adventures, the movie went downhill from being a character study to B-grade buddy cop garbage where annoying one-liners and nonsensical happy endings became the priority. The bait and switch ploy can worked, as proven by even The Dark Knight Rises (2012), but Iron Man 3 switched the perfect villain for a campy yet grounded adaptation in favor of someone with no personality beyond the word "petty."
If not for Capt. America: The Winter Soldier (2014), a great movie that realized all of Iron Man 3's missed potential and delivered Marvel's answer to Nolan, I would've given up on Marvel at this point. The problem with the Mandarin twist isn't just about character designs but how it shows what Marvel once thought of its audiences: as kids who couldn't handle anything darker than a Saturday morning cartoon.