Smoke, Mirrors, and the Mandarin In Iron Man 3

(Note: If you have not yet seen Iron Man 3, you probably should avoid reading this. Spoilers, big ones, lie just a few paragraphs down. On top of that, there’s some sensitive subject matter discussed here that’s tied to the film but stems from the upsetting topic of terrorism, which I imagine might make for difficult reading for some. Be advised.)

Alongside discussions of its quality, its place in comic book cinema, and how it relates back to its source material, there’s going to be- or there ought to be- a healthy conversation about where Shane Black’s Iron Man 3 fits in our post-9/11 cultural dialogue. There’s something inherently daring about a comic book film engaging in that dialogue through its plot elements; The Dark Knight, a ringing endorsement of the Patriot Act and a fantastical portrayal of terrorism’s impact on society at large, did precisely that with great success, and it’s the movie which Iron Man 3 thematically mirrors the most*. However, there remains a question as to whether Iron Man 3 is better identified as a post-9/11 movie, or a post-Boston Marathon movie.

There are a number of details in the film that evoke memories of 9/11; notably, the styling of Ben Kingsley’s nationally patchwork villain, the Mandarin, which recalls the garb and appearance of Osama bin Laden, as well as his penchant for issuing televised threats to his targets. We also live, unavoidably, in a post-9/11 world, so the inclination to link pictures like Iron Man 3 back to the World Trade Center attacks is natural. But for all the similarities the Mandarin shares with bin Laden, his approach to sewing terror more closely resembles that employed by the Tsarnaev brothers, who casually walked into a crowd of observers at this year’s Boston Marathon without drawing an ounce of attention before detonating IEDs, cutting through the normalcy of the day and turning a celebration of human spirit and unity into a horror show.

Of course, the discrepancy between reality and Iron Man 3 is obvious: the brothers didn’t sacrifice themselves in the blast. Taggart, the unfortunate Army veteran we briefly meet before he “burns out” and explodes outside the Chinese Theater (thee-ATE-er), winds up a casualty himself, a victim of the volatile, unstable Extremis virus that Aldrich Killian infects him with. Conveniently, he leaves behind no clues as to the cause of the blast, and it takes Tony Stark’s fabulous array of technological wonders to drill down to the truth; it’s a rare instance of answers being more easily obtained in reality than in fiction, at least as far as it concerns the characters who lack Stark’s intelligence and resources.

“You’ll never see me coming,” the Mandarin intones early in the film. It’s a promise, not a threat, and he’s able to make good on it with frightening ease. There’s a nuance to his method; the results aren’t subtle, but the idea of sneaking a bomb into a public place undetected is, in its fashion, more disturbing than the idea of flying planes into architectural landmarks. The Mandarin’s tactics completely dissolve notions of safety, making even something so mundane as a night out at the movies into a potential brush with death. (Which James Holmes accomplished by opening fire into a crowded theater in Aurora, Colorado.) No one sees him coming, and his strikes on US soil hit their marks, but the real victory for him may be the destruction of our sense of security.

That’s also true of the Tsarnaev brothers (though that certainly wasn’t their only goal). In the week that unfolded following the explosions by the Marathon’s finish line, the pair were sought out in a manhunt through Boston of unprecedented scope and scale; the elder brother died in a firefight with the police, while the younger was taken into custody the same day. As the chase progressed, residents were required, for their own safeties, to take shelter in their homes across multiple cities. Everybody breathed a massive, collective sigh of relief when the chase came to a non-violent close in a civilian’s backyard, but even several weeks after, a slight pall still hangs over parts of Boston and things haven’t totally gone back to normal. At the very least, life has stepped back from the brink of madness.

And that’s precisely the point of the Mandarin: to set society off-kilter. Of course, it’s the government, and not the public, that is most affected by his activities- six out of nine of the Mandarin’s attacks have been kept under wraps by politicians so as to avoid causing alarm. But then Grauman’s explodes, and it’s not hard to imagine how that one event undermines the efforts of the controlling body to keep from spilling the beans. We’re not shown street-level panic among citizens, but we all know what happens when violence erupts in a common, open space: people get worried. They see cracks forming in the comforting routine of their daily lives, and for a time that’s all that they see.

Which makes the truth of the Mandarin somewhat brilliant. Iron Man 3 eventually reveals to us that he’s actually just a drugged-up actor playing what he believes is a role; hapless Trevor Slattery has no idea that people have died in his character’s name. In his own way he’s a victim himself, while the real villain is the aforementioned Killian, the man Tony Stark spurns in the film’s opening flashback sequence. For the entire movie, and the span of time in which the Mandarin’s terror plot played out, Killian has one of the world’s most powerful governments looking everywhere except at him, allowing him to further his own plans.

There’s an argument to be made that by making Killian the real Mandarin, Iron Man 3 totally writes out any and all post-9/11 discourse entirely. To a degree, that claim make sense; if the Mandarin isn’t real, and the video recorded “lessons” depicted throughout the rest of the film are just distractions, then what, exactly, is Iron Man 3 doing but exploiting contemporary terrorist iconography as a plot device? How is the film not cheating its audience through the blatant misdirection of the concocted Mandarin attacks?

At first blush this puts a huge hole in the film’s center, until one thing puts the twist into perspective: that exploitative element is entirely the point.It’s not Iron Man 3 that’s leveraging the iconography to its own advantage, it’s Killian. Killian, in his own words, is the Mandarin, and his ruse has been crafted precisely for the purpose of making everybody look the other way while he grows closer to accomplishing his goals. As a figurehead, the Mandarin is nothing more than smoke and mirrors, and he needs to be able to capture the attention of both the government and the people; there’s no better way to achieve that end than with the all-too-familiar and menacing visage of radical terrorism. Thus, Killian creates the Mandarin, a perfect storm blending together the most essential notes out of the canon of terrorism- and it works, precisely because of how powerfully resonant those notes are for so many people.

Nobody even considers that Killian might be the true terrorist. As he peddles Extremis, pushes his experimentation, and advances his scheme to assassinate the president and install the vice president as his puppet leader, he remains above suspicion. It’s a facade he maintains only through his decision to flagrantly capitalize on American fear of what the Mandarin represents through image alone, and while he keeps the US military guessing as to his decoy’s next movement, he emerges as the only one who benefits from his contribution to the war on terror. He stands in the same ranks as Halliburton, Exxon Mobil, and private contracting firms like Aegis, a war profiteer who keeps the masses blind to his unethical, tyrannical insouciance as he reaps the reward of his cruel amorality. He’s the exact opposite of the Joker in The Dark Knight or Bane in The Dark Knight Rises: he’s not a believer, and he’s not fighting for ideology. He’s fighting to line his own pockets and to usurp the role of government in modern society.

While the Mandarin is nothing more than a parlor trick executed with the combined tools of editing, costuming, and cinematography (with a dash of psychological exploitation mixed in for good measure), Iron Man 3 doesn’t mean to say that the boogeyman isn’t real. He is, he just happens to be someone unexpected. This isn’t a film about the Tsarnaevs and bin Ladens, per se, but rather the hold their actions have over us even when we’re looking at them in the rear view; it’s a movie that focuses not on the Mandarin, who is himself a composite of those men and more, but Killian, the greedy industrialist who thrives behind the scenes while the rest of the world suffers. It’s the Mandarin’s familiarity that makes him an effective bit of chicanery, and Killian’s willingness to abuse said familiarity that makes Iron Man 3 a meaningful bit of post-9/11 pop entertainment.

*There are also shades of The Dark Knight Rises, but Iron Man 3 does a much better job portraying a superheroic mid-life crisis.