“If you were forced to say, ‘who is Iron Man’s greatest foe,’ you’d probably have to say The Mandarin,” says producer and Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige. “It’s not because he’s been in a ton of quintessentially classic stories — because he hasn’t been, really. He’s just been around a lot. He just goes back a long, long time.”
The Mandarin made his first appearance in Tales of Suspense #50 in 1964. In the comic book mythology, he was was a Chinese exile who ends up exploring a remote, forbidden valley where he finds the ruins of a crashed alien spaceship. Inside the craft, he discovers ten power rings, each with a different ability, which allow him to unleash havoc on the world.
When Feige and Co. were putting together the first Iron Man movie, it seemed like a natural decision: The villain had to be The Mandarin. They even announced he would be the heavy when they first came to Comic-Con in 2006.
“He was in every Iron Man 1 script until about 10 weeks before we started filming,” says Feige. “He was a contemporary of Tony Stark. He was younger. He was involved in business deals with [Stark.]” This Mandarin was trying to secure Stark’s vast weapons manufacturing resources, and Jeff Bridges’ character — Obadiah Stane, a mentor of Stark’s, would have been a kind of sidekick villain. “We’d have revealed that Obadiah was the mole on the inside,” Feige says. “But it did’t work. It didn’t work.”
So they took it out. And Obadiah Stane was promoted to Public Enemy No. 1, sporting a primitive form of the armor for a final battle as the Iron Monger. “So Mandarin has always been this sort of thing where, ‘Boy, we’d love to do the Mandarin — but thank God we took The Mandarin out of Iron Man 1.”
The Mandarin didn’t make the cut for Iron Man 2 either, with Mickey Rourke’s Whiplash serving as the main heavy instead. Tom Hiddleston’s celestial troublemaker Loki was the prime antagonist in The Avengers. But when it came time to produce Iron Man 3 — what could be the last of the Tony Stark stand-alone films (at least for several years) — they finally decided to pull the trigger on Iron Man’s “greatest” foe.
But there was still a problem.
“Marvel was of a mind … they wanted to know how to do the Mandarin,” Iron Man 3 director and co-writer Shane Black tells EW.
“Part of it was that we would rather have the Mandarin be of indeterminate ethnicity than the Fu Manchu stereotype that the comic books portrayed, but that’s not the only reason,” Black says. “I wanted to do something that was an interesting story choice, that felt like there was a little bit of satire, that was a little bit about our own fear and our own ways of viewing villains.”
Love or hate it, you can’t deny that what they ultimately did to this version of The Mandarin was a bold and risky choice.