While the organization was clearly meant to be a fictional version of Al Qaeda, many Iron Man fans recognized its name as a thinly veiled reference to the aforementioned Mandarin, Iron Man’s primary antagonist in the comics, who wears 10 magic rings, each with its own special power. Even though the Mandarin didn’t appear in the first Iron Man movie, many fans assumed that this meant he would be revealed as the head of the Ten Rings later in the series. Clearly the Mandarin, who in the comics was essentially a Fu Manchu rip-off, was being reinvented for the modern age as a sort of bin Ladenesque terrorist.
By the time of the second Iron-Man movie in 2010, the Mandarin had yet to appear. For my own part, I thought the studio might be holding back since the character might be considered an offensive ‘Orientalist’ stereotype by today’s standards. He had, after all, originally been created during the time of Vietnam War. Admittedly, I felt a little cheated, that is until several months ago when I started seeing trailers for Iron Man 3, featuring Ben Kingsley as the Mandarin, making grandiose bad guy speeches and dramatic super villain poses. However, upon seeing the movie mere days ago I was both marginally disappointed and yet, at the same time, pleasantly surprised.
As predicted, Iron Man 3 follows through with the groundwork that was laid in the first film, transforming the Mandarin from a Chinese master criminal into a bin Laden-style terrorist leader of indeterminate (presumably Middle Easter or Central Asian) descent. Like bin Laden, The Mandarin claims responsibility for numerous bombings throughout the world through the release of anti-American diatribes presented in low quality video recordings. In this sense Iron Man 3 has made the 911 meme in the 90s animated series come full circle. Now the over-all ‘bin Ladeniness’ of the Mandarin has been fully accentuated, retroactively reinforcing the semiotic resemblance of “The Grim Reaper Wears a Teflon Coat,” to the actual events of September 11th.
However, the conspiracy content of Iron Man 3 does not end there. When, Iron Man’s friend is injured in one of the Mandarin’s attacks, the hero enters into an all-out war with the terror leader, back-tracing his televised threats to a mansion, which is surprising located, not in the Middle East but in Miami, Florida. Busting into the recording room, Iron Man discovers that the Mandarin is not a master terror leader but merely a bumbling, washed up, British stage actor with a drug problem who has been hired to serve as the fake head of a boogeyman terror organization. He is simply, dressed up in robes and given scripts to read to the camera. In exchange he is paid with booze, money and loose women and since he is kept confined to the mansion he isn’t even aware that real people are being hurt in his name. The real mastermind behind all of this is a weapons manufacturing industrialist working with the corrupt Vice President of the U.S. This is all part of a plan the Industrialist set in motion back in 2000, suggesting perhaps that the entire war on terror itself, at least in the fictional world of Iron Man, is all part of his grand design.
What is interesting about this is how it bares strong resemblance to many of the so-called ‘conspiracy theories’ about Osama bin Laden. That, bin Laden was either dead or retired, and that look-alike actors working for Western intelligence were performing his various video releases, was and still is a popular opinion among many. Similar, of course, is the notion that Osama bin Laden had, in fact, been a Western asset from the beginning of his career.
While the new Iron Man film does not go as far as to implicate the entire American government in a vast cover up, the fact that a major mainstream, Hollywood film would drift even this close towards ‘conspiracy theory’ is refreshing to say the least. This might have something to do with the fact that the Writer/Director of Iron Man 3, Shane Black, might himself be somewhat of a conspiracy theorist. Black emerged to prominence in Hollywood as the writer of the first, wildly successful Lethal Weapon film which featured as a plot point a continuation of the C.I.A’s covert Vietnam War-era drug running through the Air America Project. Oddly enough, in an example of the strange connections, which often emerge in Hollywood casting, Lethal Weapon actor, Mel Gibson, would later star in a movie adaptation of the Air America story alongside future Iron Man lead, Robert Downy Jr.
Even as much as I enjoyed the conspiracy theory angle of Iron Man 3, I must admit the comic book geek part of me was a little disappointed not to see a Chinese stereotype blasting at our hero with a fist full of magic’s rings. Despite this, the film still manages to be an enjoyable romp that might actually make some halfwits give a second thought about the veracity of the whole bogus bin Laden narrative.