Much has been made of Iron Man 3's production to appeal to a Chinese audience, including the casting of well known Chines actors, and a cut of the film that included exclusive scenes with Fan BingBing. But the initial plans of Chris Fenton, former president of the Chinese-based DMG Entertainment Motion Picture Group went further. He has now written a book, Feeding The Dragon, looking at his career, getting American movies into Chinese markets, notably Looper and Iron Man 3. I recently read it, and can confirm it is quite the page-turner, and there are so many nuggets to share. You can follow along with a few I'm sharing with this tag.
Chris Fenton, with Dan Mintz, was in meeting with Marvel and, after reading as much of the Iron Man 3 script as they could allow, had a casting and script suggestion that could make aid Iron Man 3 in getting a co-production deal, an attractive release date and a wide opening in China. And it involved flattering the at-the-time-likely future President of the People's Republic of China, Xi Jinping. We'd already learned issues about issues regarding The Mandarin and a potential appearance that might have been in The Avengers. Chris was making the pitch to Marvel executives including Kevin Feige and Louis D'Esposito,
"Hu Jintao is China's leader presently. However, he will most likely be replaced by another politician named Xi Jinping. What's interesting about Xi Jinping is that he, like most rising Chinese government officials, spent a lot of time in the United States, not just on vacations or short trips, but also on extended exchanges. He lived with a normal American family in Iowa for a period. It allowed him to understand America and the way Americans live and think,"…
"Well, you have a kid in Iron Man 3. He lives somewhere in rural America, possibly in Iowa… Well, what happens if that kid is Chinese?"
The room was silent—crickets. No reaction whatsoever.
"What I mean is, what happens if we make that kid Chinese because his father, like Xi Jinping, is actually on an exchange in rural America and his son happens to be with him? Iron Man comes across the kid as he's struggling to find shelter. The Chinese kid takes him in and nurses him back to health. And then later, when Tony Stark is trying to save the day in the third act and he can't get his glove to complete the Iron Man transformation, this Chinese kid helps open the shed so that the glove can fly off to join Iron Man to save the world?"
"So you want us to put this guy Xi into our movie and have his kid be the kid who helps Iron Man?"
"Sort of, but it's not actually Xi, it just carries a storyline that is similar to his."
"That feels like an infomercial for China," Louis declared.
"It would if it made no sense, but it actually could be a viable, convincing subplot. A version of this happened in real life," I argued. "The economic benefit of something like this would be massive. Of course, around the world, we don't talk about what this subplot is, but in China, with the very officials who oversee co-production status, censorship, marketing and promotional activities, theater bookings, the number of screens, hold periods, ticket counts, and so on, this subplot would be explained and exploited! They will love it! This movie could be the ultimate cultural bridge between the world's only two superpowers. And the result will be millions and millions of more dollars for Marvel and Disney from this movie alone, and billions for Marvel in the future! It will birth the greatest cinematic brand from the West in China. Marvel will dominate as the biggest, most successful IP in China for decades."
The silence hadn't lifted in the room, but you could tell people had heard my pitch. No one was willing to show a reaction though, at least not until Kevin or Louis did.
Fenton also gives his spiel about increasing international diplomacy – something we'll revisit, I'm sure. They returned to the meeting and Chris continues his version of events,
We walked in. The room looked exactly the same as the first time around. We took our seats.
"Okay. I will admit that we fully intended to kill this deal today, but we won't," Louis started. Dan and I changed our posture for the better. Suddenly, a bit of positivity filled the room. "That said, your Chinese-kid idea is not happening."
"Why?" I asked.
"Because we're not interested in having the sidekick from Indiana Jones in Iron Man 3." Laughter filled the room. It was a moment of levity that was probably
needed. "It just feels 'too much' and heavy-handed, if you know what I mean," Kevin interjected. "We need to think about how that would look. And, in particular, we need to stay true to our IP, its mythology, and the hardcore fans that are so important to all things Marvel."
"OK. Makes sense."
"What do you have in mind?" Dan asked, seeing an opening.
"A doctor. A Chinese doctor. And this doctor would be responsible for successfully removing the RT [Chest Repulsor Transmitter] from Tony Stark's body, allowing him to live without fear that the shrapnel in his body will destroy his heart," Kevin explained. "And his name will be Doctor Wu."
"Doctor Wu? Interesting. What's the significance to the name?" I asked. "Is it a character from the Marvel Universe?" Dan asked.
"No," Kevin responded. "Not Marvel-related. At least not yet."
"So why Doctor Wu?" I prodded.
"No real reason. It's just a great song by Steely Dan."
Everyone laughed again. And shortly thereafter, the meeting ended. No other items were addressed. No time to discuss lines that treaded on censorship issues. No time even for The Mandarin. As we left the room, Dan and I looked at each other. Not wanting to speak until we got to the car, our expressions displayed both relief and confusion. Our collective feeling was probably best described as bittersweet. Most importantly, we kept the deal alive. However, understanding what Dr. Wu's role would be and how it would create the proper relevancy we desperately needed was completely unclear. Adding to that opaqueness was the name, Dr. Wu. We weren't sure it was even Chinese!
Xi Jinping was made President of the People's Republic of China in 2013. Iron Man 3 did indeed feature a character named Dr Wu (eventually). The kid, Harley Keener, was an American character played by Ty Simpkins – who reprised the role, all grown up in Avengers: Endgame. And you can listen to Dr Wu by Steely Span below.