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How Marvel’s Iron Man 3 tried but failed to please Chinese viewers, from Fan Bingbing’s pointless cameo to brazen product placement

South China Morning Post logo South China Morning Post 2/12/2021 Matt Glasby
  • A special cut of the superhero film shown only in China includes scenes so carelessly put together it feels like a fan edit
  • Before the movie starts, a new opener asks: "What does Iron Man rely on to revitalise his energy?" before answering: "Gu Li Duo!" - a Chinese milk drink

Fittingly for a film about an arrogant all-American hero forged in the fire of war, Iron Man 3's foreign policy leaves a lot to be desired.

Released in 2013 and directed by Shane Black (Kiss Kiss Bang Bang), the third outing for the Avengers' MVP as part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe pits inventor Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr) against a terrorist called The Mandarin.

It's an ironic choice of villain given that Marvel Studios originally intended the film to be a Sino-US co-production, before deciding against it to retain full creative control. Instead, Marvel set upon a route of appeasement that threatened to do quite the opposite.

In the comics, the Mandarin is explicitly East Asian - indeed, in 2021's Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings he is played by Hong Kong star Tony Leung Chiu-wai.

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Here, however - spoiler alert - he's the work of two different men, neither of whom are East Asian: Sir Ben Kingsley and Guy Pearce.

The former is actually a British actor hired to "play" The Mandarin; the latter is the evil scientist wielding the real power. According to writer Drew Pearce, a lot of Kingsley's scenes were reshot because the character "didn't feel real enough".

Whatever the truth, it's a radical departure, and you can sense Marvel edging away from the character's origins in order not to offend anyone. With his Texan accent and straggly beard, Kingsley is more Unabomber than Asian warlord.

"True story about fortune cookies," he rants. "They look Chinese, they sound Chinese, but they're actually an American invention - which is why they're hollow, full of lies and leave a bad taste in the mouth." Later he will destroy Los Angeles' TCL Chinese Theatre, proclaiming it "another cheap American knock-off".

The Mandarin's words would come back to haunt the filmmakers when it was decided to shoot additional footage in Beijing without Downey Jr or director Black. Totalling a little over four minutes, these scenes are included in a special cut shown only in China, which is so carelessly put together it feels like a fan edit.

Most of the extra footage follows heart surgeon Dr Wu (Wang Xueqi), who operates on Stark at the end of the movie, as he talks on the phone to Stark's robo-butler Jarvis (Paul Bettany), then prepares for surgery. The rest is blatant product placement.

Ben Kingsley plays a version of The Mandarin in Iron Man 3. © Provided by South China Morning Post Ben Kingsley plays a version of The Mandarin in Iron Man 3.

Before the movie starts, a new opener asks: "What does Iron Man rely on to revitalise his energy?" before answering: "Gu Li Duo!" - a Chinese milk drink. Later, we see the good doctor enjoying a glass. There are also shout-outs to Chinese firms Zoomlion and TCL.

An exchange between Wu and an unnamed nurse (played by Fan Bingbing) is not only much more ponderous than the rest of the movie, which crackles along with Black's usual nervous energy, but shot and edited differently.

Just compare it with the beach-restaurant meeting between Stark and Rhodes (Don Cheadle), which uses a hyperactive number of cuts and angles to dramatise what is essentially mundane dialogue.

Fan Bingbing in a still from the Chinese version of Iron Man 3. © Provided by South China Morning Post Fan Bingbing in a still from the Chinese version of Iron Man 3.

These extra scenes are not just shoddy, they are superfluous. Despite the Chinese trailer making them look crucial to the plot, the characters are so unimportant that neither is mentioned in either the English or Chinese version of the Wikipedia synopsis.

China-based blogger Eric Jou, who worked for video games website Kotaku at the time, called the cut "a hot mess of poor planning. The addition of Fan Bingbing and Wang Xueqi does absolutely nothing to advance the flow and plot points of the movie, I mean, seriously who the f*** comes to China for heart surgery?" Chinese newspaper the People's Daily, meanwhile, pronounced it "pointless".

For all the criticism, Iron Man 3 lived to fight another day, making US$121 million in total in China, where it became the highest-grossing Hollywood film of the year. Imagine what it could have achieved without insulting the intelligence of 1.4 billion potential viewers.

Performers at a promotional event before the release of Iron Man 3 in China. Photo: Reuters © Provided by South China Morning Post Performers at a promotional event before the release of Iron Man 3 in China. Photo: Reuters

This article originally appeared on the South China Morning Post (www.scmp.com), the leading news media reporting on China and Asia.

Copyright (c) 2021. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

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