Just how racist is Iron Man 3’s “The Mandarin?”

Casting white actors as characters of color is a time-honored tradition in Hollywood, whether they’re using hair dye and colored contacts to approximate a person of color (like with Private Vasquez in Aliens) or simply disregarding the character’s stated race and casting them as white (just about everyone in The Last Airbender and, arguably, Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games). This goes all the way back to blackface and minstrel shows. Luckily, Hollywood seems to be catching wise to the fact that they can’t just paint white people brown anymore, so they’ve begun to foray into the realm of actors who are “brown, but not too brown.”

In that respect, they seem to love Ben Kingsley, a half-Indian British actor, who has proven himself to be brown enough to play just about any race to Hollywood’s standards, but also white and familiar enough not to scare people off. So my misgivings were enormous when I learned that he had been cast as The Mandarin in Iron Man 3. It appeared that it had simply been too hard for the movie to find a Chinese actor to fill the role, or indeed any kind of East Asian actor at all. If Kingsley was ambiguously ethnic enough to portray a Maori man, a Persian man, a Jewish man, and a French man, then it seemed that by Hollywood’s standards he could also be Chinese.

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But then something happened that I honestly didn’t expect: about halfway through the movie, “The Mandarin” turned out to be a British actor hired by the villain to portray a terrorist boogeyman as a smokescreen for his true master plan. While this was refreshingly meta and provided a clever in-universe explanation for the disparity between Kingsley’s race and his character’s, did it succeed in making the movie “not racist?”

Well, it certainly wasn’t racially progressive. The reveal that The Mandarin had been Killian’s puppet all along fit quite nicely into the Iron Man movies’ pattern of having the initial non-white villain turn out to be a red herring for a white guy in a suit. In the first movie, Raza turns out to be working for Stane. In the second, Ivan Vanko is recruited by Hammer. (While Vanko is ethnically Russian and may be read as white, his foreignness is played up in the movie and I believe he fits the trend). And, of course, The Mandarin turns out to be Killian’s pawn. So, in the Iron Man movies, people of color not only can’t be the heroes of their own stories, but neither can they really be the villains of their own stories either.

But then, Iron Man 3 was a little different than the other movies. The Mandarin didn’t really exist at all, and Killian was playing on the racist, nationalistic fears of the American populace (and, by extension, the viewer) by creating a yellow-terror boogeyman for people to displace their fear onto. That whole plot thread could be read as an acknowledgement and deconstruction of the very racist tropes that I feared when I first saw that Ben Kingsley would be playing a villain called “The Mandarin.”

But I hesitate to give the movie more credit than is due. While the way The Mandarin was written was more interesting, more thought-provoking, and, yes, less-racist than it would have been if the character had been written truer to the comics, it doesn’t replace genuine representation. And I don’t want to give anyone the impression that pulling out a twist to the effect of “that character wasn’t actually Chinese after all!” is an automatic get-out-of-racism-free card. It worked for Iron Man 3. But I don’t want to see this become a trend.

So, I suppose, good job, Iron Man 3. You weren’t as racist as you could have been. Have a cookie.

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