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Character Derailment

July 13, 2010

There is no question that Iron Man’s archenemy is the Mandarin.  So in Invincible Iron Man Annual #1, we see his first appearance since the Extremis story in Iron Man: Director of S.H.I.E.L.D.  Some poor schmuck of a director named Jun Shan (who made a movie about former Iron Fist Wu Ao-Shi, otherwise known as the Pirate Queen of Pinghai Bay) gets kidnapped by the Mandarin, who has decided that a movie needs to be made about his life, and that Jun Shan is the only director with enough genius to do it justice.  Jun Shan initially refuses, so the Mandarin tosses a glass at his left eye, permanently damaging it.  Then, he puts Jun Shan’s wife under his control.  Needless to say, Jun Shan gets motivated.  Then, over the course of the comic, the Mandarin tells Jun Shan one story about his life, and Jun Shan discovers a darker truth by doing more research.  The Mandarin’s mother was a whore, he’s killed anyone who ever crossed him in any way, he fought against Mao Zedong, not alongside him, and basically his whole established life history is a lie.  Shan eventually decides to make the movie about the truth in secret, though the Mandarin inserts himself in as much of the creative process as possible.  We also find out that the Mandarin was present when Iron Man was first born, and he chooses to have the finale of the movie be the death of Tony Stark.  Which never happened.  He even ends up acting as himself in that final climactic battle.  Ultimately, Jun Shan’s assistant agrees to pretend to be his wife so Shan can grab his brainwashed wife and escape during the premier.  Naturally, when the movie actually is aired, the Mandarin is furious.  Everyone, including Jun Shan, is killed.  The only survivor is Jun Shan’s wife, who the Mandarin continues to keep as a slave.

Well, I’d say no single issue of Iron Man that Matt Fraction has ever done was as bad as this.  Why?  Because he basically decided to destroy everything about the Mandarin in one fell swoop.  The Mandarin has gone from being a cultured, dangerous, even honorable criminal mastermind to nothing more than a petulant brat with some very powerful jewelry in about sixty pages.  The Mandarin has always been one of my favorite villains in comic books, and it is shocking to see him so completely and randomly destroyed just for the sake of reinterpretation.  In fact, he seems so incompetent and childish that all of his previous successes could only be based on a mixture of luck and the sheer power of the weapons he wields.  Quite frankly, it’s insulting to the great villainous legacy of this character.  All right, so Jun Shan is a very interesting lens through which to see this very different Mandarin.  I won’t lie about that.  And Carmine di Giandomenico, the artistic wizard behind Magneto: Testament, is just great in this issue.  There isn’t anything in this book that doesn’t look great.  To illustrate his talent best of all, there’s all of the actors that they consider for the part of Tony Stark.  They all look vastly different, and yet at least two of them look almost exactly like Tony.  That’s right.  Two people with different faces that still look like Tony Stark.  That’s skilled.  Unfortunately, a good narrative focus and superb art don’t redeem this absolute trash.  I’m baffled as to why Fraction, who hasn’t done a single thing wrong with this franchise, would so vastly change one of its greatest characters.  If this is the Mandarin that Fraction plans to use in upcoming Invincible Iron Man stories, count me out.  I’ll just wait for this whole thing to get retconned away by a future writer.  Come on, you know it’ll happen.

Plot: 3.8      Art: 9.3      Dialogue: 5.3      Overall: 3.5

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