No series of events has had a bigger impact on film in the 21st century so far than the War on Terror. Perhaps in a conscious effort to avoid the kind of nationalist propaganda that characterised Cold War cinema, the films of post 9/11 Hollywood took a somewhat nuanced approach to the subject. Rather than delve into a pit of screaming Arab stereotypes it was the concept of terror and the terrorist, often in an apolitical (Right at Your Door) or even fantastical (War of the Worlds) context, that became the focus of many American films. While the terrorist, though not specifically Muslim, would inform many action films, nowhere was it more direct and more sensationalised, than in the superhero genre. Interesting then that director Shane Black has used the latest Iron Man film to not only examine post 9/11 politics, but also the idea of terrorist as super villain.
The rise of Islamic terrorism and the superhero movie happened almost simultaneously. The release of Spider-Man, the film that cemented the genre’s money making potential, had to be delayed so that images of the World Trade Center could be removed. Since then terrorists and super-powers would intersect with the likes of Magneto, Ozymandias, and even revolutionary antiheroes such as V (for Vendetta), but it would be Heath Ledger’s Joker that would define the trope of terrorist by way of Hollywood excess; an unstoppable force of urban chaos able to move silently and strike at the heart of America. The Joker embodied 21st century paranoia forming the figurehead of a three-hour treatise on terror and the limits on control.
While The Dark Knight provided the definitive terrorist villain of the decade, it was Iron Man that offered the most explicitly Islamic villain in a comic book movie. Hiding in Afghan mountains and composed almost entirely of middle-eastern henchmen, The Ten Rings were a clear Taliban proxy. While the film shoots for political complexity these cave dwelling villains are depicted as bloodthirsty and one dimensionally evil. Now in Iron Man 3 they have returned with a new leader in the form of The Mandarin, a cartoon hybrid of Osama bin Laden and The Joker.
Dressed like a modern day Genghis Khan, surrounded by Kalashnikov wielding Arabs and spouting anarchist rhetoric, The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) is everything America has been taught to fear. A fusion of every antagonist ideology, every racial other. For the first half of the film he appears to be some sort of bad joke, a racial caricature plucked from the fevered nightmares of some backwoods survivalist. Then the curtain is pulled back and the man at the controls is revealed. The Mandarin is a fake. An alcoholic British stage actor named Trevor Slattery (Ben Kingsley again) hired to play a part. All the Mandarin’s theatricality is precisely that, a performer’s interpretation of an international terrorist mastermind.
Figures such as bin Laden (who is name dropped more than once) and the groups they head have always existed in the shadows, seen only in sporadic home movies, their existence validated by their acts of violence. In the absence of a more tangible presence an alarmist media and dishonest politics have reconstructed them. They have been transformed from desert dwelling militias into an all-powerful source of evil in the style of a James Bond villain. When the Mandarin’s true identity is revealed as the dishevelled Slattery his false persona seems not only unbelievable, but outright preposterous. In his place film’s true villain, weapons designer Aldrige Killian (Guy Pearce), plans to use The Mandarin and a corrupted US Vice President to control both sides of an international conflict that he will arm.
While figures like bin Laden were not invented entirely, their power and influence was greatly exaggerated, mostly for the benefit of political institutions and the military industrial complex. In the months after 9/11 the US government would depict Al-Qaida as a vast, organised group with access to state of the art weaponry and sleeper cells all over the world. Donald Rumsfeld appeared on MSNBC with drawings of an underground mountain lair that Blofeld himself would be envious of. With reality seeming so much like fantasy, Hollywood offered a version of terrorism even further from the truth. Not only were the bin Ladens of Hollywood imbued with an almost supernatural capacity for destruction, but also more than ever made claims to realism and social relevance. Realism became the driving philosophy of Nolan’s Batman films, his Joker achieving his aims through conventional means (knives and bombs rather than smile gas and acid flowers) and yet could move around the city like a ghost and had access to a limited supply of arms and manpower.
For the majority of Iron Man 3, The Mandarin is a spectre, free of physical form and capable of seemingly impossible feats. He appears in bombastic videos that highjack the airwaves, creates explosions without bombs and even hacks the President’s phone, all as a series of “lessons” directed at the US government and eventually Tony Stark himself. But his attacks are in fact a sham, the result of malfunctioning bioweapons and corrupt government officials. And all of his seemingly profound rhetoric is as fabricated as his persona. When the inebriated Trevor Slattery first stumbles onto the screen he repeats his previous speech, now in a drunken stupor. Robbed of its showbiz trappings it is a hollow, almost meaningless, piece of literal fortune cookie wisdom.
The terrorist as super villain has offered some truly iconic characters over the last decade. But as much as characters like the joker are entertaining they have fed into a constructed reality that has served the purposes of those who would exploit the public’s paranoia for their own ends. With Iron Man 3 writers Shane Black and Drew Pearce have turned the trope on its head and showed that the super villains we were threatened with in the wake of 9/11 may be as fabricated as the ones that have dominated the screen.