Chris Fenton was president of the Chinese-based DMG Entertainment Motion Picture Group, General Manager of DMG North America (owners of Valiant Comics), and Senior Advisor to IDW Media Holdings. 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 just read it, quite the page-turner, and there are so many nuggets to share. So here are a few.
When DMG were in talks with Marvel about co-producing the movies, with the additional entry into Chinese markets that this would provide, Fenton talks about his conversations with Tim Connors, former Chief Operating Officer of Marvel Studios, later the COO of Legendary, QED International and current Senior Vice President at Blizzard.
"There was some good news from Connors," I started. "Assuming we pony up more money, they did offer us the opportunity to create a teaser at the end of Avengers for the China market. That would give us a chance to tease a potential character, either The Mandarin or Shang-Chi. It's our decision as to which."
The development team in Beijing felt Shang-Chi was the safer role to promote since he was a "good guy" and a hero, while The Mandarin was clearly a nemesis to Iron Man. Strictly thinking about how the "Ministry of Propaganda," which reports directly to the Politburo, would view it, you always wanted the Chinese character to be a good guy or a hero, not a villain. Remember to them, China is good, and the West is bad. The Politburo wanted white-knight messaging. The country was spreading its wings globally, and it wanted to be viewed as a friend to the world, not an agitator or adversary encroaching on long-established borders through an Imperialistic strategy. But American hubris, and often ignorance, commonly led to studios putting the Chinese in an antagonist role. Additionally, Hollywood didn't want to waste the part of a hero on a Chinese actor. But a villain role? No big deal. And simply putting Chinese people in a film was mistakenly thought of as the guaranteed price for admission to China's lucrative market. So, studios did it.
Read the book to find out which. Chinese martial-arts action hero, Shang-Chi, was in Marvel Studios' original line-up of opposed movies alongside Captain America – but not Iron Man or Thor. It never made it to the screen back then, but that is changing with the announcement for 2021 of the movie Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings – which also suggests the Mandarin too. The proper one. Filming of that movie has recently resumed in Australia. But what about that Avengers credits scene? Fenton writes;
A Marvel antagonist like The Mandarin was risky. It posed a high-stakes gamble, not just for us, but also for Disney and Marvel. If it backfired, it could prohibit a release of the film in China. Even worse, it could prevent both studios from gaining any traction in China for other films coming later. Worst case, a temporary blackballing… For us, the wrong use of a character like The Mandarin could shut DMG down forever.
"From a strictly 'which character is more interesting' standpoint, The Mandarin is more riveting because he is super intelligent, he is a skilled martial artist and he possesses the ten rings from an alien spaceship which allows him to teleport, among other special powers," Alan Chu, our Beijing-based development VP, explained, sharing a dissenting point of view. "He grew up with a major chip on his shoulder and is able to harness all that into who he is today. There are more layers and depth with this character."
Such an assessment would foreshadow problems ahead, unbeknownst to us. Marvel not only had final cut and approvals, but they were also looking to make the most globally entertaining and profitable film possible. Thinking first about China was not their priority. A super-complex, yet flawed character full of surprises? Now that was a
different story. "That makes a lot of sense, but it also scares me," I responded.
"Scares SARFT also," Alan mentioned, referring to the State Administration of Radio, Film, and Television, the bureaucratic layer that took orders from the Ministry of Propaganda. Below SARFT was China Film Group. They oversaw, regulated, and controlled all the distribution of films in China, once SARFT approved it. "Their reaction to The Mandarin is very negative."
"By the way, let's pass on The Avengers teaser opportunity. Agree?"
"Yes, Dan said that also. Too expensive and not enough time."
"Okay. I'll let Marvel know."
The conversation then moves back to Tim Connors.
"The Mandarin scares the shit out of us."
"Why?" Tim Connors asked.
"He is way too controversial for Chinese censors."
"Why is that?"
"Because The Mandarin looks and acts like the stereotypically derogatory Chinese man. Not only does he have a long spiny beard that he's constantly straightening with his fingers, but he also regularly speaks in uber-'Chinglish,' constantly saying Chinese-cliché types of proverbs," I explained.
"Come on. Seriously?"
"Yeah. I'm serious. Additionally, his character's main motivation is to kill Iron Man!"
"You don't know that for sure."
"That's what scares me more," I responded. "So that leads me to ask…if you wanted us to tease The Mandarin in the end crawl of The Avengers, does that mean Marvel is definitely using him in Iron Man 3?"
"I don't know."
"Ask yourself this, then. If Marvel does use him, could he be a Red Dawn kind of antagonist that gets us all banned from China?"
"Don't be so dramatic," Tim responded. "Besides, creative won't tell me anything, and the script hasn't been completed yet anyway."
"I wish I wasn't being dramatic."
"Don't freak out yet. Let's see." There was a tell in his voice. I heard it.
The Mandarin was going to be in Iron Man 3.
And of course, he was. But not in any way that people were expecting. And instead of Mandarin of Shang-Chi, we got Thanos – and shwarma.