Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy

There was some really good back and forth in the comments section for Monday's post that I think merits some extra discussion. In Monday's post I very strongly asserted that the Mandarin is Iron Man's arch-nemesis - just like the Joker is for Batman, Doctor Octopus is for Spider-Man, etc. (Spider-Man's arch-enemy is NOT the Green Goblin - Doc Ock is the truest reflection of Spidey's core themes and personal conflict, the Goblin is just a gimmick crime boss who got pushed to the big time because he was plugged into the book's soap opera in a way that permanently warped the strip's dynamic for the worse. But I digress.)

Anyway, longtime commenter moose n squirrel rightfully called me on my assertion. he wrote:
Putting aside the fact that the character is a monstrously racist caricature, the Mandarin is utterly peripheral to the core themes of Iron Man as currently understood, a remnant of a time when the Yellow Peril loomed large in the American id in the form of Mao's China, and when Iron Man spent most of his time fighting official enemies of the State. The first film already satisfied the concept's inner jingo by having Iron Man blow up a bunch of brown people in Afghanistan, which is to say, the movies (and the comics, for that matter) have moved on to a more contemporary racial scapegoat. When you start dragging out the Yellow Peril, you might as well have Tony Stark go up against the international conspiracy of Scheming Jew Bankers while you're at it.

The insistence on introducing the Mandarin to the Iron Man movies reminds me of people who kept clamoring to see the Dark Phoenix Saga in the X-Men films, despite the fact that the weird mix of space opera, SM and 19th century cosplay that makes up the story of Phoenix has exactly fuck-all to do with the various themes and metaphors that have made the X-Men stories work over the years. But hey, it's remembered fondly by fans, so who cares if it makes any sense?
It's hard to disagree with the core of that argument - that, at his heart, the Mandarin is too egregious of a racial caricature to be tolerated; and additionally, those facets of the Mandarin's character which may have once placed him as Iron Man's legitimate ideological opposite are no longer as central to the Iron Man's thema.

Fair points, both. I confess, however, I am more sympathetic to the first point than the second point: dealing with the troubled - unpleasant - downright awful - racial legacy of some of our most cherished strips (and Iron Man is certainly far from being cherished in the same way as The Spirit or Terry & the Pirates) is a persistent challenge for anyone who takes the medium seriously. (And, obviously, it's not as if all these problems with representation disappeared with the civil rights era, as we saw just last week in the case of Ryan Choi.) I can't dismiss the validity of these claims by simply making an appeal to the historical importance of the Mandarin's character: you could make a similar claim that fighting demoniacally exaggerated caricatures of Japanese soldiers is an integral part of the Sub-Mariner's mythos, and you'd you'd be just as dead wrong.

But I think the Mandarin is a better character than that. Partly this is because a lot of work has been done in the ensuing decades since his creation to rehabilitate him, but this is itself a product of the fact that many generations of creators have seen the Mandarin as Iron Man's de facto arch enemy. From a purely mechanical perspective, whether or not the character should be Iron Man's arch-enemy is secondary to the fact that he undeniably is. Almost unique among heavy-hitter Marvel villains, he is still used sparingly - but whenever he does show up, it's usually a Big Deal. And Tony Stark treats it as such: when he showed up recently in the last storyline of the pre-Fraction Iron Man, they took pains to show that Iron Man was more afraid of the Mandarin than anyone else on the planet - more than Doom, more than the Red Skull, more than the Hulk. Creators over the years have worked hard to sell the Mandarin as a top-shelf threat. If you get rid of the Mandarin, you're left without any character to fill that void in Iron Man's mythos.

Asserting that the character doesn't fulfill a function - or rather, fulfills an anachronistic purpose in Iron Man's current status quo - is, I think, a subtle misreading just what Iron Man is about. There actually is a fairly complex core to the character, and it stems from his position not as the symbol of technological futurism - a reading that is certainly valid but has been over-emphasized in recent years - but as the avatar of a certain, crucial element of American cultural identity. Techno-futurism - and the knee-jerk optimism this implies - is certainly a part of it, but it's not the only part. Iron Man is also a blatant symbol of American exceptionalism, and the idea that America can assert itself on the world stage simply by virtue of its technological and economic hegemony. This can be both good and bad: as a fantasy, it's nice to imagine an agent like Iron Man who can represent American values when fighting international criminal conspiracies and world-beating warlords, but also - and one thing the new movie got very right - it would be scary as shit if an American decided to proclaim himself world policeman, with or without the tacit support of Washington, based simply on his own understanding of right and wrong. In the 60s Stan Lee accepted these ideas fairly uncritically - let's not forget Tony Stark began his comics career as an arms merchant touring the battlefields of Vietnam, and spent much of the 60s fighting Communists, which is something even Captain America didn't do very often (most of his run in Tales of Suspense is spent in WWII flashbacks, laying retroactive groundwork for Cap's WWII career that is still used today). But later on, when Vietnam was widely recognized as a mistake (even by many who argued its merits in theory) and America entered an era of heightened self-consciousness, Tony Stark transformed into something a bit different: a character who, almost unique among high-profile superheroes, could be unlikeable.

I think this is a really important facet of Iron Man that not many people discussed openly until Civil War: it's not as if Stark's high-handed self-justification was a new development, he has been making awful choices and alienating friends in the name of personal righteousness for decades. He was an alcoholic, and after he recovered from that he alienated most of the world by declaring open war on anyone who had stolen his armor technology. (If you recall, that was the first time his actions put him and Cap at each others' throats - he broke into a federal prison to incapacitate the Guardsman armor used at the Vault and ended up cold-cocking Cap, back when he was briefly just The Captain.) His whole history since then has been filled with dramatic, catastrophic overreach followed by personal tragedy and setback. It's always been OK to dislike Iron Man because it's been hardwired into his character for decades that he does unlikeable things. And therefore his status as an avatar of American exceptionalism is no longer just an uncritical acceptance of technological triumphalism and an aggressive, supposedly "humanitarian" foreign policy - America is also a high-handed son of a bitch who is congenitally unable to perceive its own faults. And I don't think, in this respect, I'm reading too much into the character here: this has been Iron Man's accepted characterization for about 35 years.

So if Iron Man has changed to reflect America's post-60s identity, than the Mandarin has also evolved - haltingly, it is true, but measurably - to reflect our concept of The Other. Again, this is hardly hidden subtext: China was profoundly humiliated by hundreds of years of foreign - Western - domination, and by the time of their civil war in the mid-part of the century, nationalist sentiment was the driving force in the country's desire to reclaim lost territory and reassert political sovereignty over all aspects of Chinese life. (This also at least partially explains Chinese intransigence in any and all issues relating to international intervention in their internal affairs or the internal affairs of other countries.) The Mandarin is a Chinese nationalist par excellence, a supposed descendant of Ghengis Khan dedicated to driving out foreign influence from the mainland and reasserting the strength of imperial China. He isn't just an enemy to American interlopers but to the Communist regime and to international capitalism as well. He is, at the risk of simplifying a much larger concept, the return of the repressed - the final result of Asia's profound humiliation at the hands of the industrialized West, a nationalistic monster willing to do whatever is necessary to expunge Western influence from his homeland. And, of course, this also begs the subsequent revelation that, at least in terms of Iron Man's position as a frequent catspaw of and ideological stalking horse for American imperial ambition, the Mandarin is 100% in the right - if Tony Stark is going to climb into his one-man weapon of mass destruction suit and carry out thermonuclear gunboat diplomacy writ large, he deserves to get his ass kicked.

But even after I've spent all this time laying out the case for the Mandarin, we're still left with the question of whether or not, even if there is a good idea behind the Mandarin, is it a story we can realistically tell? Because, really, this isn't a researched term paper on Frantz Fanon and Homi K. Bhabha, this is an arm of the Walt Disney Company putting out a movie with toys and happy meals. Even the most well-reasoned and even-handed portrayals of otherness in fiction can still smack of cultural ventriloquism. But then there is the danger of going too far to the other end of the spectrum, where there are almost no villains of color in comics, and every black / asian / hispanic / gay / etc. character is an absolutely moral and righteous pillar of society - which is great and all, but sort of sidesteps the idea of true diversity. After all, shouldn't there be a proportionate number of black arch-villains? We wouldn't be having this conversation if Iron Man's arch-enemy was a blond German descendant of Charlemagne, or an Italian relation of Cesare Borgia.

But even the most strident conservative is going to get queasy over images of blond, vaguely Aryan superman proxies beating up on ethnic minorities. I mean, when was the last time (outside maybe of Ennis's run) you saw the Punisher blowing away a crowd of black gang members? There's something not quite right about seeing a white European clad in deaths' head iconography killing members of an economically underprivileged minority group - even if, you know, there are a few African-American and Hispanic drug dealers here and there.

So we're left with moose n squirrel's initial position, which I can't in all honesty dismiss even if I think a good argument an be made to the contrary. What is to be done? Do we need to have an Asian-American redefine the Mandarin so that he can be fully utilized in the future? That worked wonders for the Black Panther, who was given a remarkably successful "soft" reboot in the late 90s by black creators, a direction which stuck and turned the character from an occasional bit player in the Avengers to a headliner in his own right (even if mass popularity is still elusive). Or is it stupid and blatantly pandering to wait for an Asian creator to come along and give us all a - well, what would we call it? A "Chinatown pass"? - an all-clear to use the character in good conscience again? I dunno.

All I know is that if they ultimately decide to forgo the Mandarin for the next movie, I'll settle for Ultimo: nothing screams toyetic quite like a hundred-foot-tall robot from space bent on annihilating all life on earth.

1 comment :

CultureWarReporterEvan said...

I wrote a post last year about my opinion on The Mandarin as an Asian-Canadian, and I agree with you whole-heartedly. A minority villain who is used well can be just as effective in increasing and improving diversity as a minority superhero, and this is something that people have trouble understanding.

My post, if you have the time to read something you already more or less agree with: