Wednesday, 5 June 2013

Marvel, Mystique and the Mandarin

By now we've all seen Iron Man 3. If you haven't seen Iron Man 3, go and see it because it's great. Also, don't read on because this post is basically all spoilers.

With the Iron Man spoiler-warning out of the way, let’s talk about… X-Men.

We, as comic-book fans, have a tendency to forget that our relationship to comic-book movies works both ways. We approach them as "how does this compare to the comics", but there's another group - a much larger group - who are more familiar with the films. For them the question becomes "how do the comics compare to the movies".
Case in point: All New X-Men.

All New is a new series focusing on the first ever team of X-Men (Cyclops, Jean Grey, Iceman, Angel and Beast) who are transported to present day from their own lives in the 1960s. The title is actually kind of a joke because, as well as not being remotely new, "the all-new X-Men" was originally a name used for the second team of X-Men (Wolverine, Storm, Nightcrawler et al).
This new comic, I feel it's safe to say, would not exist if it weren't for the success of the film X-Men: First Class. Despite Beast being the only character who appears in both, and despite the movie being a Fox production rather than Marvel Studios, this comic may never have been greenlit (never even thought of, maybe) if the oldschool blue-and-yellow 60s X-Men weren't back in the public consciousness.
So, while the comics continue to inspire the movies, we have now reached a point where the movies also inspire the comics. And this, in turn, works both ways: as well as imitating the films so that new readers will find them familiar, as with the slightly ridiculous Nick Fury Jr., the comics can also subvert the familiarity of those readers, as we’ll see with All New X-Men.

In issue #7, the young Cyclops (from the past) meets Mystique (from the present). Mystique, as anyone who has seen First Class knows, is the naked blue shapeshifter girl who was taken in by the young Charles Xavier, grew up to become an X-Man, then defected because she didn't like having to wear clothes.
Except that's not even close to what happened in the comics. Nowhere near. So when Mystique introduces herself to Scott this way, as an old friend of Xavier who regrets the bad things she's done, comic-book readers are left slightly confused. I wondered if maybe I'd missed an important arc somewhere, or a retcon. But then, at the end of the issue, it's revealed that she doesn't mean a word she says - her closing words, regarding her fellow mutants, are "Screw them all."

This is presented as a twist, but it's no twist at all if you're familiar with the comics. But if your only point of reference is the X-Men films, and First Class in particular, then this must come as quite a shock. This entire issue seems built to surprise new readers who only know the films. For instance, I don't think she's even once referred to as Mystique; instead she always uses her given name, Raven - the name she also uses in First Class. The reveal is undermined a little by the fact that in the comics, instead of being naked, Mystique wears a belt of human skulls - but she blows this off with the same "I can’t help how I look" talk that she uses in the film, again aligning with a version of the character that isn’t actually this one.
While all this is designed to work a specific way for those new readers, it still plays to the rest of us. We spend the issue wondering what Mystique’s angle is and, sure enough, she has one. It’s not as though the issue is wasted on long-time readers - we just have a different experience to those who aren’t.

The way this ties into Iron Man 3 (at last) is that I can’t help but wonder if any of those newcomer film-fans felt upset that this portrayal of Mystique wasn’t true to the character they were familiar with. Did any of them go online to rage about how they felt betrayed and insulted? Or were they thrilled to see how this character they thought they knew was being used in a different way? Did they laugh at how they were taken in and how great a reveal it was? Did they appreciate having their expectations used against them, or was it a problem?
Because a lot of people thought it was a problem with the Mandarin.

The Trevor Slattery reveal is the best film moment of the year so far. Really, it is. And as with the X-Men moment, it plays different ways to different viewers. To non-comic-fans it’s a very well-executed twist of the narrative - but to those familiar with the character it’s a twist on every expectation and familiarity we took in with us. It’s not just turning the film on its head, it’s turning everything that we know on its head, too. It’s brilliant. Regardless of whether or not you liked it, that subversion - the fact that they did it and the way that they did it - is brilliant.

To me, there’s no real difference between a film-fan being presented with a Mystique they’re not familiar with, and a comic-fan presented with a Mandarin they’re not familiar with. The superficial difference is that where Mystique is still Mystique, the Mandarin is not actually the Mandarin. This blatantly ignores the fact that Aldrich Killian is clearly the actual Mandarin (did you see those dragon tattoos?) - although he represents another version of the character that we also aren’t familiar with.
Besides, amid all the whining that it isn’t true to the comics, the fact is that the Mandarin fake-out actually does draw from the comics. In the same way that the Marvel movies use the version of Nick Fury from the Ultimate comics series, as opposed to the one from their main comic universe, the movie version of the Mandarin is taken (partly) from the Heroes Reborn continuity, where he is a public figurehead created and controlled by a more shadowy villain (in that case, Doctor Doom). No-one complained about the use of the "wrong" Nick Fury, so I don’t really see how they can complain about the "wrong" Mandarin, either.

What it comes down to is what we are looking for in these films. Adaptation is a strange thing, in that we go to see film versions of things we like - novels, comics, TV shows - and we hope they will be faithful to the source material but, paradoxically, the best adaptations are often the ones that take the most liberties with their source. The Lord of the Rings work better as films than most of the Harry Potter series precisely because Harry Potter is often too reverential to the books - they offer us nothing new or surprising. Twilight doesn’t work at all because they literally just vomited the book, unchanged, onto the screen (it doesn’t help that it’s a terrible book).
Comics - the main DC/Marvel ones, anyway - are in a rare club shared only by James Bond and some older long-running television series, where replicating the actual events and plots don’t matter. The audience is there for some very broad strokes of story and character and, if those conditions are met, it’s basically a playground. They can pick and choose from an enormous history of possible ideas and do whatever the hell they like. And where comics are unique - where not even Bond or Trek can compete - is that "what if" stories, and multiple different versions of characters in multiple different universes, aren’t just common but actually the norm. That’s what the Marvel Cinematic Universe is - just another step in the long tradition of these comics.

People are upset because Iron Man 3 doesn’t portray the original, classic, Mandarin. But the great thing about comics is that there really isn’t an "original" version. What’s Iron Man’s origin? Which war was he wounded in? Depending on which comics you’ve read, there are several different answers. Wolverine’s origin is even more confused. What is that guy’s actual mutation? Bone-claws or just healing? And which universe are we talking about, anyway? That’s just Marvel - drag DC into this question and the words "pre-Crisis", "post-Crisis" and "New 52" just confuse matters even further!
The Mandarin as portrayed in the comics doesn’t actually resemble the original, classic Mandarin, either. That guy was a slanty-eyed Chinese mystic with buck-teeth and a Fu Manchu; where the modern incarnation is a powerful businessman who runs a biotech company - one which actually employs Maya Hansen to work on the Extremis virus. He is Aldrich Killian in all but nationality!
Which begs the question of who is imitating who at this point? James "Rhodey" Rhodes has recently become the Iron Patriot in the comics - simultaneous to the same thing happening in Iron Man 3. The production of one undoubtedly influenced the other, and the film could arguably be the original here (as is certainly the case with the comic version of Phil Coulson). Either way, worrying about it seems pointless; there’s so much material involved in comic-books - so much of it contradictory, confusing, and often outright rubbish - that to ask the films to remain "true" to the "original" material is ridiculous.

I have one friend, for example, who is eternally bitter that Hulk in The Avengers was "wrong". The semi-controlled version in the film upset him because it wasn't true to the character he was familiar with. He's been unable to ever truly enjoy that joyous film because he's limited himself to this one specific version of Hulk. The crazy part being that the version he's used to isn't even the Hulk from the comics (where "Smart Hulk" is actually pretty common); it's the Hulk from the Avengers cartoon!
Because there are no definitive versions of these characters, we all give significance to the version we know most well. When people talk about the classic Mandarin, they don't actually mean the original version, they mean the intermediate version from the 80s and 90s. For a long time, my own idea of Spider-Man was entirely shaped by the cartoons, just as Chris thinks cartoon Hulk is the only Hulk. But there's no reason to believe that any of these versions are somehow more or less accurate than others.

All that's important is that Marvel keep creating interesting and compelling stories from the massive pool of resources they have. That can mean closely following particular stories or characters of the past; or it can mean subverting expectations to tell those stories in a new way, or new stories entirely. And it works both ways - the films and comics are all in the same pool, and either can draw from the other. Whether it’s a film about Iron Man or a comic about the X-Men - whether it’s playing into what we've seen before, or playing against it to surprise us - as long as it's interesting and entertaining and it works, then which specific parts it's made from don't even matter.
Comics, the stories they contain and the movies they inspire, are infinitely malleable in a way that few other formats allow. The Mandarin reveal, or the contrasting versions of Mystique, wouldn't be possible in any other kind of medium. We should be celebrating that, not trying to restrict it!