Armchair Screenwriter: ‘Iron Man 3’

Posted: November 4, 2010 in Action Movies, comic books, Jeff Holland, Threat Quality
Tags: , , ,

(Continuing our discussion from Tuesday about how to make likely IM3 villain the Mandarin a little less silly.)

From a storytelling standpoint, Iron Man and Iron Man 2 lead into the Avengers movie. Tony Stark becomes a superhero (IM1), battles his own demons (IM2) to the point that he can join an organization that fights the creeping evils of his world (Avengers). That’s where the Iron Man story would logically conclude, right?

But with the conclusion of that story, announcing Iron Man 3 is basically forcing out a new narrative, and by extension, its new villain: Iron Man’s generally-agreed-upon arch-nemesis, The Mandarin. And…hoo-boy, is that a problematic villain to stick into the end of a trilogy (quadrilogy?) of movies.

Let’s go back a second and talk about arch-nemeses. As the logic goes, the best heroes are defined by their villains, and that’s usually true. The villains are, as dark reflections, great storytelling engines. They answer questions about the hero’s motivations by showing what happens when that reasoning goes wrong.

It’s a broad idea, but look how well it works:

  • Spider-Man = Green Goblin, another scientific genius whose accidental exposure to SCIENCE!, but without the ingrained “With great power…” idea, he turns insane and dangerous
  • Captain America = Red Skull, the Nazi ideal of a super-soldier, as ruthless and hateful as Cap is heroic and inspiring
  • Batman = The Joker, as diabolically intelligent as Batman but even more focused on chaos and absurdity than Batman is to an ordered world
  • Reed Richards = Dr. Doom, one a genius devoted to friends, family and scientific progress, the other devoted to his own ego, power, and revenge against perceived slights
  • Superman = Lex Luthor, an otherworldly messiah-figure raised on modest Midwestern values, vs. a self-made egotist who resents the intrusion of a would-be “better,”
  • AND SO ON.

The problem with Tony Stark’s rogues gallery is that the ones who aren’t a) armored bad guys and/or b) corporate raiders are c) Cold War relics.

So even though Mandarin got there first, guys like Obediah Stane/Iron Monger (IM 1) and Justin Hammer/Titanium Man (IM2) – representing Tony’s “evil opposites,” both physically and philosophically – have already been used. So, unless you want to feature yet another corporate or armored bad guy (and even if that weren’t totally hacky, the well’s pretty dry now), they gotta just bite the bullet and use The Mandarin.

Favreau and Co. were clever enough to have laid down a little groundwork already, by introducing the notion of “The Ten Rings,” a vague terrorist organization that employed IM1 villain Raza (the bald guy with the red ring he kept touching). So…maybe they have some idea of how they’re gonna do it.

But…The Mandarin. Dang! At worst, he’s a horrible Cold War Chinese stereotype. At BEST he’s been reconfigured as yet another corporate raider – except in this case…well, he has magic rings he got from an alien dragon-race’s spaceship.

You just TRY to think of a way to write that script, in a way that actually fits the world they built over the last two movies. I mean YES, in IM2 Tony made a brand-new element in his basement. Nobody is arguing the awesomeness of that (seriously, don’t. YES, it was a bit ridiculous, but it happened, and as much as we all would have preferred an introduction to Vibranium, which was so stupidly obvious I’m ASTONISHED it didn’t get worked in there, well…here we are, so let’s move on).

But I’ve been wracking my brains figuring out a way to explain that in terms of the movie’s military-industrial motif, and I’m a bit stumped.

The ONLY way his character might make any sense at all is to treat him as a science-terrorist. A Doc Savage gone horribly wrong, perhaps.

A Chinese corporate poo-bah/secret superman who has been secretly nurturing terrorist science-cells throughout the world, linked via the symbol  of ten rings – all of which represent some skill set or philosophy (the rings correspond to powers like heat, cold, teleportation, psionics, matter rearrangement, etc., so maybe the ring-cells could represent some fringe-science each cell is trying to perfect?).

So, basically, The Mandarin is the leader of an AIM-like organization (and damn right I want the yellow jumpsuits and helmets), fronting as some kind of ultra-progressive foundation that colors Stark Industries as stodgy military-industrial-complex relics. But Tony Stark has suspicions about them, and tries to use his status to investigate (suffering “America’s bullying True Believers” narratives in the process).

But, once faced with a physical confrontation with Iron Man, he might, say, use the results of these ten experimental outposts, in ring-form, against Iron Man. Which could have physical and/or environmental side-effects while also being astonishingly powerful.

And then maybe they all fight dragons! Nevermind.

Maybe that could be the Big Idea around IM3. If the previous films put forth the notion of companies and technology as world-changers (and – I’m assuming with Avengers – post-humanism), then in IM3, we can see the end result of that – a monster who blends politics, terrorism and science in a plot for world domination.

I just reread that sentence and I’m not terribly confident that it can be executed successfully.  But that’s the best I’ve got.

But maybe I’m missing something. Either The Mandarin’s got more story-oomph in him than I’ve seen, or there’s some better Iron Man villain to use (I dunno, The Ghost?). Use your brains and please prove me wrong.

Alternately, please provide your Fin Fang Foom suggestions, which I think would make everyone happier in the long run.

  1. Jefferson Robbins says:

    Disturbed by the fact that Fin Fang Foom wears pants. More disturbed that he might have reason not to take them off.

  2. Erin says:

    Tony is going to be hanging out with the god of thunder in the Avengers. I think the high tech setting is about to be a moot point.

    So bring on the magic rings!

  3. Jeff Holland says:

    @Erin: Oh yeeeaaaaahhh. And apparently the Captain America movie has something to do with the cosmic cube (which…look, I’ll admit “the Tesseract” is imposingly mysterious, but, just SAY “cosmic cube” and see if it doesn’t make you smile).

    OK, so, maybe we should try to guess how they’ll try making “No, he’s got 10 magic rings. On his dragon-hands.” kind of awesome?

  4. Maybe set up The Mandarin as a sort of Ras-Al Ghul style enemy? “You could be heir to my limitless power, if you would give up your foolish dream of whirled peas.”

    Of course, even the name is stupid. Can you imagine a modern supervillain called “The Arabian”?

  5. braak says:

    Yeah, as grotesque, absurd, and basically morally reprehensible as I consider it, I’m forced to agree with Erin.

    Thor introduces not just the idea of magic, but the idea of super-science techno-magic. Of course, even if it didn’t, I’d actually just say go for it. Would people not get it? Yes. Who gives a shit about them — you teach the audience how to appreciate your work.

    Any way, all this makes the Mandarin a fascinating counterpart to Iron Man, because the nature of his character goes in two phases: the first is that he is the irrational, alien MAGIC that super-scientist Tony Stark basically is incapable of comprehending; and, secondarily, the Mandarin reveals himself to BE a kind of science-villain whose nature he doesn’t understand, but that Tony Stark actually can.

    So, when he first fights the Mandarin, he’s totally demoralized because his science weapons are failures in the face of the Mandarin’s incomprehensibility; but, through the power of INTELLECT, he manages to figure out what’s really going on with the Mandarin and his powers and thus to thwart him.

    And, obviously, if Tony Stark is the heroic avatar of the US Military-Industrial Complex (which he obviously is), then the Mandarin as a villain is not just a more appropriate villain than ever, but a more ballsy villain than ever.

    Which is why he will not appear in Iron Man 3. Probably instead it will be a miraculously resurrected Obadiah Stane teaming up with Justin Hammer.

  6. braak says:

    Who was it, though, was it Warren Ellis who talked about the idea of China or Japan had developed some kind of Kaiju Weapons Program, of which the ultimate product was Fin Fang Foom.

  7. Lolly says:

    So this is a question coming from someone who doesn’t have anything, but the most surface knowledge of superhero lore and comic conventions.

    I know it has never been done before, but do you think it could be possible for a film based on an established character to introduce a villain who is NOT in the comic books? Like, if all the available villains suck or are not really suited for screen adaptation could they just make one up? Or would that create a problem with Marvel?

    I mean, this is obviously not a problem for someone like Batman or Superman who either have a whole team of awesome and well-crafted villains or have an arch nemesis who is himself complex and interesting enough to last through several film adaptations and some rather awesome supporting villains as well. But wouldn’t it make sense to add a villain for someone like Iron Man? Where the talented filmmakers might be hampered by the deficiencies of the underlying comics?

  8. braak says:

    It’s not completely unheard of, but it’s rarely well-received. Assuming a best-case scenario, in which the filmmakers are very talented and manage to create a compelling, interesting villain (unlike in, say, Superman 3), you’ve still got a fan backlash to worry about. The fanbase is usually not big enough to hang the success of a film on, but it is still potentially problematic to risk alienating them.

    This obviously doesn’t consider the fact that most of the times that fillmmakers have introduced new characters or villains, they haven’t done a very good job with it.

  9. Maureen says:

    I really want to see the Mandarin as a douchey white guy who’s “really into Chinese culture.” I’m thinking Nic Cage.

  10. Jeff Holland says:

    Oh man, that is a very Nic Cage role.

    However, based on his appearance on “Conan” last night, I’d say it is now the part Jack White was born to play.

  11. M. says:

    From the looks of the trailer, your description is EXACTLY what they ended up going with.

    There’s reference to terrorism and there’s a quick shot of a faceless man with hands decked out in rings. IMDB says it’s the Mandarin.

    The actor isn’t asian, though. They were probably worried about offending people.

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