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Eastward Ho! How Marvel's 'Iron Man 3' Met China UPDATE

Photo of Jacob Combs By Jacob Combs | Thompson on Hollywood May 13, 2013 at 12:48PM

UPDATE: As new "Iron Man 3" scenes were added for specifically Chinese audiences upon the boffo film's release, the re-release of Quentin Tarantino's "Django Unchained," featuring three minutes cut from the original (including nudity scenes), is flopping in China. The film originally hit Chinese theaters April 11, and was pulled within "minutes of its opening screenings... without official explanation," per Deadline.
"Django Unchained"
"Django Unchained"

It was big news, then, when Disney announced in April 2012 that it would be co-producing "Iron Man 3" with the Chinese company DMG Entertainment, thereby opening up the possibility for the studio to access the 38 percent return.  The problem for American studios, though, is that China's definition of what qualifies as a co-production is vague at best.  Marvel later opted not to pursue the co-production route, choosing instead to release an alternate cut of the film in China with a few additional scenes added to cater specifically to the country's moviegoers.

That's where Wang Xueqi's Dr. Wu comes in.  In the Chinese version of "Iron Man 3," according to Eric Jou, a Beijing-based writer for the website Kotaku, there are about four minutes of extra content featuring an additional storyline with the good doctor.  In one scene, after watching Tony Stark challenge the Mandarin on TV, Dr. Wu calls Stark and speaks to his electronic butler, J.A.R.V.I.S, who in this scene alone speaks in Mandarin Chinese.  "Tony doesn't have to do this alone," Dr. Wu tells him, "China can help."  At the film's close, it is Dr. Wu (and only Dr. Wu!) who can remove the shrapnel from Tony's chest in the film's closing moments, right after Fan Bingbing has her seconds-long "He's here!" cameo.  (One puzzling added scene involves nothing more than a single, long shot of Dr. Wu pouring a glass of Yili brand milk.)

As the LA Times reported, neither Robert Downey, Jr. nor "Iron Man 3" director Shane Black had any involvement with the extra China-specific footage.   The decision, it seems, was made entirely by Marvel itself to please Chinese censors.  In another bow to government officials, the Chinese version also changed the problematic name of Ben Kingsley's "Mandarin" villain, translating it instead--yes, it's true--as "Man Daren."

The problem for Marvel, and the lesson for any other American studio pondering its own pander-fest, is that Chinese viewers didn't like the extra content that was made specifically for them.  People's Daily, a newspaper owned by the Chinese Communist Party, responded to the film with an article titled "Iron Man 3 Draws the Audience Ire: This Special Chinese Version Is Pointless."  An anchor on the talk show Shuo Tian Xia, according to Kontaku, opined pointedly that "a good way to get Chinese on board is just make a good movie."

A Tale of Two Masters

With its Chinese "Iron Man 3," Marvel decided to adopt a policy of over-placating Chinese officials, but then did a clunky job of adding in China-specific material and thereby created a film that some rank and file moviegoers seem to have rejected. As Horn stated in his interview with PRI: "There no such thing as artistic integrity when it comes to China.  There are hundreds of millions of dollars to be made there."

If there's any lesson to be learned though--or at least some interesting semi-prediction of what's to come--it's this: Even if Hollywood does improve at navigating Chinese bureaucracy and getting its films into the People's Republic, it could very soon find itself at the mercy of two masters.  The first, of course, is the Chinese government: the censors and officials who quite literally hold the digital keys to the kingdom.  But the second master is equally important: the very viewers American studios want to lure into the theaters to watch their films. Another question is how the exhibitors in China feel about their government's control of the product they're playing their theaters. They too want to bring in customers.

There's a fundamental disconnect at play here that "Iron Man 3" may be at the forefront of revealing.  To put it plainly, Hollywood may soon find itself the Yossarian in an unusual Catch-22: to get to Chinese viewers, you have to get past Chinese censors, but to get past Chinese censors, you may be adding content that Chinese viewers don't like.  At the risk of belaboring the obvious, that isn't much of a plan for long-term success.

SARFT is also a huge stumbling block when it comes to the issue of co-productions, as it's very difficult--as many Hollywood players have discovered--to come up with an approved script that is also a likely audience pleaser. This East/West cultural gap may prove insurmountable.

This article is related to: Foreign, Iron Man 3, Django Unchained, Exhibition

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Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.