Box Office Race: Refiguring Asian Villains in ‘Iron Man 3’ and ‘Star Trek Into Darkness’

The Mandarin, ‘Iron Man 3’

Spoiler alert: This post details plot twists for both movies

Two of this summer’s studio tentpoles, Iron Man 3 and Star Trek Into Darkness, feature dramatic twists concerning their central villains. In particular, the trailers for both of these films served to misdirect audiences about the identities of Ben Kingsley’s Mandarin and Benedict Cumberbatch’s mysterious John Harrison. Marvel’s trailers suggested that the Mandarin was the film’s primary villain, while Paramount tricked audiences about who exactly was gunning down the USS Enterprise. But most interestingly, the spoiler-phobic marketing and discourse surrounding both of these movies negotiated issues of race.

Historically, the Mandarin, possibly Iron Man’s most formidable enemy, has perpetuated the stereotype of the inscrutable, maniacal Fu Manchu. The marketing of the latest Star Trek film carefully concealed the true identify of Cumberbatch’s character: Khan Noonien Singh, first seen in the franchise’s original TV series but best known from 1982’s Star Trek II. Notoriously, Ricardo Montalban played the character of Indian descent, suggesting the interchangeability of minority actors across race and ethnicity. The filmmakers of Iron Man 3 and Star Trek Into Darkness rewrote these characters, perhaps out of a fear of offending Asian or liberally-minded viewers, but, interestingly, the two films take radically different approaches. While Iron Man 3 critically foregrounds the very issue of Othering inherent in the Mandarin, Star Trek Into Darkness avoids the issue altogether by employing a white actor.

Khan, ‘Star Trek Into Darkness’

As an Asian American, I was deeply skeptical of Marvel’s decision to cast Ben Kingsley as the Mandarin, and I was not the only one scratching my head. Mark McDonald of the International Herald Tribune chronicled the debate over this apparent “whitewashing”—specifically, that a half-Indian, half-white actor was cast to play a half-Chinese, half-white character. The move suggested ignorance of or ambivalence about ethnic specificity. The decision is also tied up with bigger issues around terms like “Asian” and the hyphenate “Asian American.” These terms perform important political functions as identity markers for commonly oppressed peoples, but they also efface distinct historical and national contexts. Marvel had, technically, cast an Asian as an Asian, but in doing so raised important questions about what it means to be Asian.

Announcements that Iron Man 3 would be a coproduction with China further complicated the announced plans for the Mandarin. Intentionally or not, the move seemed a cunning attempt to legitimize the Mandarin in the face of possible skeptics. By pointing to its financial partner, Marvel could deflect criticism about the perceived racism of a revived Fu Manchu stereotype. (More importantly, the move guaranteed the film a foot in the incredibly lucrative Chinese market.) But all of this speculation and debate turned out to be unwarranted, or at least misguided.

Iron Man 3 introduces the Mandarin as a terrorist of ambiguous ethnicity. He commandeers American airwaves to criticize American imperialism and claim responsibility for civilian deaths. At first, this portrayal seems to exacerbate rather than mitigate a monolithic conception of Asianness, collapsing East Asian, South Asian, and Middle Eastern identities. But the film later reveals its true update of the character: the Mandarin turns out to be a fiction played by bumbling actor Trevor Slattery (Kinglsey). In the diegesis, the Mandarin is a complete construct, an amalgamation of Otherness that critiques American geopolitical discourse. In an Entertainment Weekly feature published after the film’s release, cowriter and director Shane Black said he designed the character to satirize “our own fear and our own ways of viewing villains.” The absurdity of the radicalized images is placed front and center.

The criticism inherent in this rebooted Mandarin goes even further: the mastermind behind the deception is Aldrich Killian, a de facto weapons manufacturer with ties to the top of the U.S. federal government. By controlling supply and manufacturing demand, he maximizes his profits. Through Killian, the Disney-distributed Iron Man 3 unexpectedly becomes a critique of the military-industrial complex and an indictment of American racism.

Furthermore, both Iron Man 3 and Star Trek Into Darkness echo post-9/11 fears and anxieties over terrorism. This seems much more latent in J.J. Abrams’s sci-fi sequel, but the connections become loud and clear with a jarring dedication to post-9/11 soldiers. The debates leading up the capture of “John Harrison” parallel the debates around what Dennis Kucinich would call “assassination politics.” While Kirk suggests vengeance at any cost, Spock advises that even this enemy deserves a fair trial. Like Iron Man 3, Star Trek Into Darkness updates an iconic villain to play out questions about terrorism. Considering this dynamic, it becomes clearer why, despite convincing cases for alternate casting, Khan should not have been played by an actor of South Asian descent.

Khan, ‘Star Trek II’

To clarify, the original Khan cannot be dismissed as an absolutely racist character. As Stuart Hall notes, the possibility of oppositional and negotiated readings suggests that images cannot be evaluated according to simplistic positive-negative binaries: one must also consider the broader intertextual context. The original Star Trek series broke ground with its multiracial cast, not least by having Kirk and Uhura kiss on TV only a year after the Supreme Court officially struck down anti-miscegenation laws. Additionally, to this day, George Takei is one of the most prominent Asian American cultural icons and an advocate for the Japanese American community and LGBT rights. And finally, the half-Vulcan Spock might be entertainment’s most famous biracial character.

Still, the racially confused casting of Khan invites scrutiny. Star Trek Into Darkness likely would have faced controversy no matter the casting decision. Picking a South Asian actor to play Khan would have been a great opportunity for a minority actor, yet controlling for all other variables, this change would have made any 9/11 connections deeply problematic. Such a decision would have (perhaps implicitly) perpetuated the ethnicity-ignorant racial profiling so prevalent in the wake of 9/11. The choice might have “corrected” the casting of a Mexican as a character of Indian descent, but the reductive conflation of South Asia and the Middle East it might have reinforced instead would have been equally problematic.

According to early reports, Benicio del Toro, who is of Puerto Rican descent, was the favorite to play the villain for Star Trek Into Darkness. By casting Cumberbatch instead of a Latino actor, Abrams and Paramount could play up the mystery surrounding the true identity of their villain. In truth, the revelation turned out to be a non-event, expected by Star Trek fans and meaningless to most others. More than anything, the mystery was used as a tool in an arguably unsuccessful marketing campaign. During its opening weekend, Star Trek Into Darkness underperformed, and reports suggested that the early crowds comprised mostly fanboys. Whitewashing concealed Khan’s identity, but the marketing simply did not offer enough information to entice non-fans.

This is not to suggest a causal relation between the casting of Khan and the marketing strategy but rather to point out the odd way in which the marketing and discourse surrounding the villain seem to be deeply tied up with issues of race and representation. While Iron Man 3 cleverly exploits the racism of the character and of the audience, Star Trek Into Darkness erases the issue of race completely. As a satirical io9 piece put it, the film suggests the refreshing truth that “a white male can still be cast as an Indian played by a Mexican.”

These (admittedly speculative) scenarios are enacted to consider the near-impossibility of prescriptive critiques for issues of race. Criticisms of representation often fail to consider the larger industrial and intertextual contexts of films. Hollywood’s fondness for franchises and sequels inherently works to perpetuate stereotypes embedded in the histories of its properties, which goes for heroes as well as villains. If Hollywood is so keen on reviving villains of the past, it has to constantly mitigate issues of racism, acknowledging how many viewers embrace political correctness and characters who “happen to be” East Asian, South Asian, Middle Eastern, or white. Studios likely know it is in their best interest to avoid egregiously racist representations. They can only hope to regularly develop solutions as profitable as Iron Man 3 and Star Trek Into Darkness.

Author Bio:

Todd Kushigemachi received his BS in Journalism at Northwestern University, where he also minored in Film and Media Studies. He is currently a second-year MA student in Cinema and Media Studies at UCLA. With a background in entertainment journalism, he still writes features for Variety as a freelancer. His interests include representations of race, the discourse surrounding 3D, and trends of nostalgia in both classical Hollywood cinema and contemporary visual effects.

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