When Marvel began developing movies for their characters, I was cautiously optimistic. Their characters have become American icons and seeing them on the big screen with ridiculous special effects budgets was going to be amazing. But because the characters are so old, many of them dating back to the 1960s, I knew that eventually the issue of race was going to come up.
With the upcoming release of Iron Man 3, that issue has come up. The movie’s main antagonist is long-time Iron Man foe the Mandarin. Established as Tony Stark’s greatest enemy in the comic book series, the character debuted in 1964 and embodies the sixties view of South East Asian male villains.
Namely, he’s cunning, sickly looking, effeminate, coldly logical, and sports a Fu Manchu moustache. In the mid-nineties animated series Iron Man, the Mandarin’s skin is literally green.
Obviously, that character wouldn’t work today. It’s so racist that any attempt to represent him as he was originally written would be played off as a joke immediately. How would Marvel cast a character who is out of date and offensive?
Thus far, they have made good decisions on how they will represent the character.
They have glazed over the fact that the Mandarin was originally East Asian.
They enlisted Oscar-winning Ben Kingsley to play the role.
Some may be upset that Kingsley, who is half English and half Indian, is playing an East Asian character, but, even though yellow facing white actors and white washing Asian characters is a major concern, Kingsley’s casting is the perfect way to remove controversy from the Mandarin.
It takes away the yellow peril that originally defined the character but leaves the strength and cunning that has given him so much appeal.
Was the Mandarin written Asian? Yes. Should he have been casted Asian? Absolutely not.
With Kingsley in the part, Marvel can spend time focusing on the real reason he’s such a dangerous foe for Iron Man. Not because he’s Asian and represents an enemy that is subhuman or one that is prepared to destroy Western culture and civilization, but one that forces the hero to question himself.
The way superhero movies are being created, there will eventually be more Asian villains who were originally villains because they were Asian. This doesn’t necessarily mean they shouldn’t be used, it just means they need to be updated to what is appropriate today.
Is that bad, that we’re whitewashing? Absolutely not. (end)