INVINCIBLE HEROES are no fun. The ancient Greeks, who set the model for Western drama, knew that. Their heroes always come with a fatal flaw, be it psychological or physical. The warrior Achilles is a case in point.
Through the ages, humans have preferred to follow the plight of heroes with a vulnerable side - because that makes them more like us.
It's a moot point whether American heroes such as DC Comics' Superman and Marvel Comics' Spider-Man are the myths of the modern age, although the fanatical devotion of their fans suggests they are more important to their readers than mere pastimes. DC and Marvel, the two major US comic companies, have always offered different versions of heroism. In the 1960s and '70s, DC heroes were generally superhuman, one-dimensional characters, while Marvel's were troubled creatures who pushed their physical limits to a masochistic degree. Marvel's Spider-Man, in "real" life the lovelorn adolescent Peter Parker, is the best known of these.
But one of the most self-absorbed characters is super-rich inventor and arms dealer Tony Stark - also known as Iron Man. Iron Man seems to live in a state of perpetual existential crisis as he flies around in his metallic suit of armour, trying to figure out the morally best course of action. He pushes his body to the point of exhaustion, and has even had an alcohol problem.
Iron Man has, of course, been the star of two hit Hollywood movies, both directed by Jon Favreau. The latest instalment, Iron Man 3, opens in Hong Kong on April 25.
The first Iron Man film won critical acclaim for its portrayal of a superhero with a human side, rather than a vengeful killing machine. Its credibility was helped by the fact that the star, Robert Downey Jnr, had some well-publicised drink and drug troubles in the late '90s.
Although the film is still very much a dumbed-down Hollywood action flick - there is no nuance to the characters and precious little sense to the plot - it did at least try to include some personality foibles and inner conflict. The sequel, Iron Man 2, was disappointing, reverting to standard action tropes and taking a ham-fisted approach to its character's failings.
Iron Man 3 features a new director, Shane Black, replacing Favreau, who wanted to move on to other projects. (Black scripted the first two films, and co-wrote the third.) Whether he chooses to delve further into the superhero's vulnerabilities is yet to be seen, but with the latest choice of villains, it's clear where his focus lies.
China plays a big part in the production this time: some of the film was shot on the mainland, there is the involvement of mainland distributor DMG (which has sometimes been mentioned as a co-producer), and venerable mainland star Wang Xueqi plays Radioactive Man, a role that was first considered by Andy Lau Tak-wah.
According to recent reports, mainland audiences will get to see more Chinese scenes than viewers in other territories, including Hong Kong, and the Chinese version will feature an appearance by Fan Bingbing as Radioactive Man's wife. This is all in line with the Hollywood studios' desire to increase their box office on the mainland by including "Chinese characteristics". The James Bond film Skyfall, which featured scenes in Shanghai and Macau, was another recent example.
The biggest Chinese element in Iron Man 3 is controversial. The villain this time around is the Mandarin, a regular from the comic book. In the comic, he is of partly Chinese descent: the son of a Chinese warlord and an English noblewoman, and a possible descendent of Mongol leader Genghis Khan. Drawings in the early '60s comic book depict the Mandarin as a Chinese caricature.
But in Iron Man 3, he is portrayed by Ben Kingsley, who is part-English, part-Indian. This harks back to the practice of what used to be called "yellowface", when Chinese roles in Hollywood were played by other races made up to look Chinese: in 1937's The Good Earth, an adaptation of Pearl S. Buck's novel, the Chinese heroine O-Lan was played by the Caucasian actress Luise Rainer in heavy make-up, for instance.
The Iron Man producers have tried to circumvent the problem by claiming that the Mandarin in their film is not Chinese at all. According to them, he is just someone who is obsessed by The Art of War writer Sun Tzu and Chinese symbols. Director-writer Black claims that this way, the filmmakers can avoid "Fu Manchu" stereotyping - Fu Manchu being the stereotypical Chinese villain of American films of the '30s. Pre-release photographs from Iron Man 3 show the character sporting a beard and clothing that looks to be based on that of Ming the Merciless, the stereotypical Chinese-looking villain from the Flash Gordon B-movie series of the '30s, and the 1980 film. It's also possible that the American producers didn't want to irritate the State Authority of Radio, Film and Television, the mainland state censorship body, by having a Chinese arch-villain.
Iron Man was originally created by Marvel's head honcho, the idiosyncratic Stan Lee, in 1963. Lee, who worked from gut instincts, had the idea of creating a character which went against the spirit of the age, a hero that would be, at least superficially, the opposite of what his audience wanted. In 1963, liberal attitudes were coalescing into what would explode into the free-living, free-loving, pacifist mid-'60s. So Lee cheekily created Tony Stark, a patriotic playboy arms dealer with a penchant for winning the Vietnam war, as Marvel's new hero, Iron Man.
Unlike Superman, but like Batman, Iron Man had no physical superpowers, although he was often tagged, inaccurately, as "invincible" in the comic's title. His power came from his brilliant inventor's mind. He was possibly the first cyborg to appear in comics, relying on a mechanical apparatus in his chest to keep him alive, and a specially developed lightweight suit of armour to protect him. The character, who appeared in Tales of Suspense and Tales to Astonish before getting his own magazine, was a big hit, and even Lee was surprised.
The Iron Man of the film series keeps a lot of the comic character's personality intact, although it's based on a modern version of the series called Extremis, written by Warren Ellis. In the original, Stark created a hi-tech suit of armour to escape from the Viet Cong in Vietnam whereas, in the Extremis version, it was al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. The film version picks up on the latter strand, although Hollywood, which today has a paranoid aversion to real-world politics, never mentions al-Qaeda. Instead, the terrorists who take him prisoner are an undefined group of "insurgents" with an undefined creed, a gang of renegades who simply want to take over the world.
Iron Man 3, which draws from more elements in the Extremis storyline, promises a return to the self-analytical style of the first film, with publicity focusing on the idea of Iron Man questioning, "Does the suit make the man, or the man make the suit?" Cue more existential angst along with big fights to the sound of clanging metal.
Iron Man 3 opens April 25