I did not attend Comic-Con in San Diego last week. Fortunately, I didn’t need to.
Comic-Con has become such a huge media event that in this age of Internet ubiquity (along with tweeting, texting, blogging, et al), not to mention old-school newspapers, keeping up with Comic-Con news was easy. Not only that, digital communications mean you can get the news while avoiding the funk of hygienically challenged fanboys. (Just kidding, fanboys — I count myself among that crowd, so consider that self-deprecating humor. There actually are some fanboys who shower regularly and don’t weigh 350 pounds or live in their parents’ basement.)
A couple of the items that caught my eye was that Jackie Chan, about whom I wrote in my last column, attended his first ever Comic-Con to promote his next movie, titled “Chinese Zodiac.” He has also, it appears, backpedaled from earlier statements in May about retiring from action movies in order to become a “serious actor.” (Just retire already, Jackie!)
Another movie with a Chinese connection that was promoted at Comic-Con was “Iron Man 3,” set for a 2013 release. None other than Robert Downey Jr., who starred as the titular character and his alter ego, Tony Stark, in the supersuccessful “Iron Man,” “Iron Man 2” and this year’s box-office smash “The Avengers,” was present at the confab.
Although there were rumors prior to Comic-Con, it has been confirmed that the franchise’s third installment will finally feature the villain most comic book fans would say was Iron Man’s greatest enemy: The Mandarin. It’s just odd, in a way, that it’s taken this long.
After all, the most-popular superheroes had great villains who served as the foils who defined what made a particular superhero unique. Batman had Joker, Spider-Man had Dr. Octopus and Superman had Lex Luthor. A superhero without a great villain is worthless, and in those aforementioned characters’ various movie adaptations, they invariably took on their most-felonious foes.
But not Iron Man. I have reason to believe that his arch-villain didn’t appear in the first two movies because he had some unique, anachronistic and troubling characteristics as presented in the Iron Man comic books of yore.
Playing the Mandarin — a Fu Manchu type if there ever was one — will be played by Oscar winner Ben Kingsley. While those who know Iron Man only from the movies may not have heard of the Mandarin, comic book fans are no doubt familiar with the character, who, as might be discerned from his moniker, is of Chinese descent. (Extra geek points if you knew that Mandarin was actually half-white on his mother’s side.) His 10 power rings of extraterrestrial origin made him a formidable foe for Iron Man in the comics.
The Iron Man comics, it should be noted, not only utilized a Chinese villain who was a riff on Fu Manchu, the origin story of why and how industrialist and scientist Tony Stark developed his Iron Man armor took place in the comic book equivalent of Vietnam. Iron Man’s comic book armor, it turns out, has many Asian threads.
Part of the reason for the preceding was that when Iron Man was introduced in the early 1960s in Marvel Comics, the U.S. was in the midst of the Cold War vs. the communist nations of the (now defunct) Soviet Union and Red China. There was also a little conflict called the Vietnam War. In that regard, it kind of made sense.
Making the Mandarin a Fu Manchu clone was, while clichéd, par for the course back then. And he wasn’t alone. Marvel also had the Yellow Claw and ol’ Fu Manchu himself in the 1970s-era “Shang Chi, Master of Kung Fu” series. That the Fu Manchu archetype was so prevalent in Marvel Comics is actually somewhat of a stain on Marvel maven Stan Lee’s otherwise stellar résumé of Marvel Comics creations.
It was Stan Lee who helped introduce one of the first black superheroes in Black Panther, for instance. But neither Marvel nor DC really ever established a major Asian or Asian American superhero of any significant popularity other than the aforementioned Shang Chi, who was created after the kung fu craze ushered in by Bruce Lee.
Things have changed since Stan Lee helped create both Iron Man and the Mandarin. The Yellow Peril politics just don’t play anymore. Furthermore, with the movie being partially shot in China, and with Hollywood trying to partner with Chinese investors, making the Mandarin fit the old stereotypes would be in bad taste and probably vex the Chinese to no end.
Kingsley’s casting is interesting in its own right. Hiring the former Krishna Banji (Kingsley’s name at birth), who is Anglo-Indian, seems smart on paper since he is a respected actor and because it can be honestly said that he is of Asian ancestry.
The physical dissimilarities between South Asians from the Indian subcontinent and East Asians (Chinese, Japanese and Korean) are very apparent. But casting Kingsley threads a needle. It doesn’t tick off the Chinese by making the villain someone who doesn’t look like them, and dodges the usual complaint of not casting Asians when an Asian is called for. I wouldn’t be surprised if somehow the character of the Mandarin in “Iron Man 3” won’t actually be Chinese after all.
But how “Iron Man 3” will shake out is anyone’s guess. It’s also possible that the Mandarin might end up being portrayed as a sympathetic villain instead of the typical madman out to conquer the world.
I have hope that the filmmaker’s behind “Iron Man 3” (Jon Favreau, who directed the first two, will not helm this one) realize that making the Mandarin hew to the comic book portrayal of the character would be disastrous. But if by chance they don’t, there will be problems that even a superhero can’t conquer.
Lin the Rocket Man Dept.: New York Knicks sensation Jeremy Lin will now, sadly, be known as a Houston Rockets sensation. They made him an offer that the Knicks refused to match and he walked.
This is what The New York Daily News reported: “Knicks GM Glen Grunwald contacted him at 11 p.m. EST on Tuesday night to inform the second-year point guard that the club would not match the $25.1 million offer sheet Lin signed with Houston.” Another published report said that Knicks owner James Dolan felt “betrayed” by Lin.
So, Lin’s New York adventure ends. Seems like the Knicks got the worse end of the deal, even though Lin won’t be able to maximize his off-court monies since he’ll be out of the media spotlight that is New York.
Yes, Lin is still somewhat unproven since he didn’t finish the season and is still recovering from knee surgery. But he brought a real spark and energy to a moribund franchise that, had he played anywhere close to the level he did earlier this year, would have brought excitement and much money to the team.
Too bad Lin couldn’t have come to the Lakers!
Suzuki Returns Dept.: Earlier this year I wrote about Japanese director Junichi Suzuki and his latest documentary “MIS: Human Secret Weapon.” It was his third and final installment of his “Nikkei Trilogy” of documentaries that included “Toyo’s Camera” and “442: Live With Honor, Die With Dignity.”
Back on June 16 I received an email from him letting his friends and contacts here know that he was returning to Japan after 11 years of life in the U.S. He also noted that he was completing a book on Japanese Americans to be published by Bungei Shunju in September.
I sent him an email, and he wrote me back to say “MIS” will be released in Japan on Dec. 8 (interesting coincidence, since Japan is a day ahead of us and they mark the Pearl Harbor attack on that date!) as “ … an Oshogatsu-eiga in several cities.”
Suzuki also said that he’ll be back in Los Angeles in early November to make a 40-minute DVD about Japanese American history in WWII that will be donated to 1,500 high schools in the U.S. and Japan. It will be produced by Dr. Paul Terasaki.
If there is one individual in recent times who has done the most to expose the Japanese American experience to the people of Japan, it is Junichi Suzuki. It would be fitting if he could be honored and recognized for those efforts. The JACL has its Japanese American of the Biennium Award, but Suzuki is a Japanese national so that probably wouldn’t work without a rule change. But there must be something for him. In a way, he was a Japanese American “secret weapon” for telling this community’s story to its cousins across the Pacific.
Until next time, keep your eyes and ears open.
George Toshio Johnston has written this column since 1992 and can be reached at [email protected] The opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect policies of this newspaper or any organization or business. Copyright (c) 2012 by George T. Johnston. All rights reserved.