Mandarin In Animation - A Retrospective
Part One -
Part Two -
Part Three -
A new Iron Man animated series started airing in 1994, paired with a new Fantastic Four animated series airing in syndication inside a block named The Marvel Action Hour. The stories were more or less faithful to the comics but the character designs and animations were pretty bad, making the first seasons of both these shows hard to sit through. The Mandarin was the main villain throughout the shows' run, voiced by Ed Gilbert during the first season, with Robert Ito taking on the role when the improved second season premiered. In pretty much every season one episode the Mandarin would come up with a (usually ridiculous) plan to get his hands on Tony Stark's technology and steal Iron Man's armor for himself, but every time he was thwarted by the armored avenger and his team, the Force Works composed of War Machine, Spider-Woman, Scarlet Witch, Hawkeye and Century. The Mandarin also put together a team of super-villains (MODOK, Dreadknight, Blizzard, Blacklash, Grey Gargoyle, Hypnotia, Whirlwind, Living Laser and sometimes Fin Fang Foom) to help him carry out his plans, but never actually completed their missions successfully.
This green-skinned Mandarin was present in every first season episode but he was mostly used as a comedic villain and never really seemed too menacing. The same can be said about his minions (and his second in command, MODOK being the goofiest). In his quest to obtain Iron Man's armor which he believes would enable him to rule the world, the Mandarin often allied himself with Justin Hammer, Stark's number one competitor in the weapons making business. None of the Mandarin's plans were too brilliant here, and he was always defeated by the end of the episode with little to no continuity or character development between episodes. This season, the Mandarin tried to: turn the crew of a Russian submarine into radioactive zombies he can control (in the series premiere "And the Sea Shall Give Up Its Dead"); use a giant alien robot to try and rule the world (in "Rejoice! I Am Ultimo, Thy Deliverer"); frame Tony Stark (in "Data In, Chaos Out"), Hawkeye (in "The Defection of Hawkeye") and even Iron Man himself (in the two-part episode "Iron Man to the Second Power"); steal some of Stark Industries' newest inventions (in "Silence My Companion, Death My Destination" and "The Grim Reaper Wears a Teflon Coat").
However there were also a few episodes that gave some limited background information about some of the characters. In "Enemy Without, Enemy Within" Mandarin once again plans on stealing one of Stark's newest inventions (the water strider) and sends his troops to set up a trap in a cove where a famous model was having a photo-shoot. MODOK recognizes the woman, she was his wife until he became what he is today. He goes against the Mandarin's orders and asks Iron Man and Force Works for help to rescue the woman he loves. We get a short origin for MODOK through a flashback, which I thought was pretty cool. As a bonus, we also get some kind of motivation for his alliance with the Mandarin: apparently the green-skinned villain knows how to change MODOK back to human form and has the power to do it, in exchange for his loyalty.
"The Origin Of The Mandarin" reveals how the Mandarin became what he is today. In this version, he was once an archeologist named Arnold Brock who while on an expedition to Central Asia, came under attack by a group of rebels who surrounded his campsite. The expedition's leader, Yinsen comes up with a plan to help Brock and his fiance escape, but believing he is the one who matters the most, Brock escapes alone, leaving even the woman he loved behind. However he is attacked by the rebels and is forced to take refuge in an underground cave he accidentally discovered earlier. There he realizes the cave is actually the petrified hull of an alien spaceship that crashed on our planet a thousand years ago, and discovers ten gems which increase his strength and intellect, transforming him into the green-skinned Mandarin, the one destined to rule over the entire known world.
He returns to his former campsite only to find the place in ruins and abandoned thanks to the attacks earlier. He notices the bands of the rings his fiancee wore (apparently the thieves just took the gems from them) and places the alien gems he discovered inside them, now having his new found powers literally at his fingertips. He is soon confronted by a large alien dragon, Fin Fang Foom who orders him to return the gems he stole, but while he has them the beast can't destroy him - resulting in an unholy alliance between the two. The rest of the episode features a plot by the Mandarin to hypnotize everyone who watches this recording of his origin so that he can infiltrate the armory and take control of Iron Man's most powerful armor. In the end the armor itself turns against him and the Mandarin is once again easily defeated. All in all, this was a pretty great episode (at least the origin story; the rest of the episode was pretty much on the same level as the previous episodes).
The two-part episode "The Origin Of Iron Man" offers us a slightly updated version of how Tony Stark became Iron Man, also adding the Mandarin in the origin story. After his father's death following an accident at Stark Industries (which was actually part of a sabotage plan by Justin Hammer, his number one rival in the business) Tony Stark took over the company and brought it to new heights, but Hammer's attacks continued and one day Tony was caught in an explosion which embedded metal splinters near his spine - an injury which could result in paralysis at any time. He was then brought in front of the Mandarin, who ordered him to build an invincible armor with which his forces could conquer the world. He is soon joined by Yinsen, who was also captured by Mandarin's henchmen and brought in to help complete the armor. The two prisoners bond and come up with a plan to build an armor only Tony could wear so he could escape. Wearing the Iron Man armor for the first time (although it looked exactly like the current armor he had throughout the first season, and not as the grey bulky armor he first wore in the comics) Tony manages to escape from the Mandarin's castle; not wanting to reveal his real identity to his enemies, he also faked taking with him a dummy made out to look like Tony Stark, which apparently was convincing enough to fool the villain into believing he now has two implacable foes.
Overall this was a pretty good origin episode although the wrap-arounds surrounding these flashback scenes weren't all that interesting: Iron Man was injured in a fight with Fin Fang Foom and needed to hide inside a glacier to repair his armor, and his helmet projected these memories using the new memory module he invented. The Mandarin's henchmen, Fin Fang Foom and two other dragons (a golden one and a silver one, apparently robots created by MODOK for some reason) and Iron Man's own team spend most of these episodes searching for him, resulting in one big fight at the end which is pretty disappointing.
In the season one finale "The Wedding of Iron Man", after re-watching all his past failures Mandarin realizes that ever since Iron Man and Tony Stark escaped his custody (as seen in the previous "Origin of Iron Man" episode), they have never been seen in the same place together, thus deducing they are one and the same. Meanwhile Tony and his team also realize Mandarin has been spying on them this whole time, for him to know exactly when to attack or try and steal his newest inventions. Fearing the villain might have also discovered Iron Man's true identity, Tony comes up with a plan to fool the Mandarin once again. He organizes a fake wedding ceremony for a Tony Stark look-alike cyborg and Julia Carpenter, knowing that Mandarin would attack them. Everything goes according to plan until Iron Man comes to the rescue, saving the fake Tony, scaring the Mandarin's henchmen off and convincing the villain think they are two different persons.
The second season of this Iron Man animated series premiered in fall of 1995 and just about everything about it was better than the first season. It was especially nice seeing characters that have been presented rather poorly in the first 13 episodes get some well deserved character development and actually become more interesting. The season premiere, "The Beast Within" offered us a lot of stuff in a single episode: the Mandarin (now voiced by Robert Ito) became more credible as a villain, his alliance with the alien dragon Fin Fang Foom ended after the latter tried to double-cross him, as well as Iron Man's team disbanding (apart from War Machine and Spider-Woman) after he faked his death and didn't think he could trust his teammates enough to tell them the truth.
The episode also gives us some more information about Fin Fang Foom's origin: his spaceship crashed on Earth ten centuries earlier, with only five survivors aboard. Four of the dragons used the powers of the gems that are now in the Mandarin's rings to change their appearance and look human, and set out to become businessmen over the centuries. Now the dragons have reunited and try opening a portal to their home planet, wishing to bring the dragon lords to Earth so they could conquer it. Mandarin finds himself helpless against this threat - apparently his rings weren't powerful enough to stop the dragons. The villain is forced to join forces with his sworn enemy, and with the combined powers of his rings and Iron Man's armor manage to destroy the portal. However in the resulting explosion, the ten rings are scattered all over the world and the Mandarin has disappeared. The final scene of the episode reveals that the villain has survived, and sets out to travel the world in search of his rings. Pretty much every following episode would end with him regaining one of his rings and slowly becoming more powerful.
Mandarin recovers all his rings and powers in time for the series finale, the two-part episode titled "The Hands of the Mandarin". This time he plans on cleansing the world of all technology, leaving the countries defenseless from his attacks finally resulting in him conquering the world. To reach his goal, he uses the Heart of Darkness, a crystal which emits an anti-technology field. Mandarin requires super-powered humans to fuel his crystal, and manages to capture the recently reformed Force Works team, as well as Iron Man. He also finally learns the real identity of his archenemy, after melting Iron Man's helmet with the power of his rings, resulting in a very awesome scene. Without technology, both Tony and MODOK (Mandarin's most loyal lackey) are in mortal danger: the former requires to recharge his chest-plate to continue living, while the latter's life-support system is failing. To ensure his success Mandarin also connects his former minions to the crystal, giving it enough power to blanket the entire planet with the anti-technology fog.
Rhodey manages to sneak inside the villain's citadel and rescue Tony, who once returned to New York suits up with a new, prototype bio-armor which is activated by his DNA and able to function inside the technology draining fog. Wearing this new armor Tony manages to fight the Mandarin and free his team-mates, also destroying the crystal which causes half of the Mandarin's rings to loose their powers. The final fight between Iron Man and Mandarin was pretty awesome, as the latter wears his own battle armor resembling a samurai. He is soon defeated however and the explosion of his armor sends him flying outside the citadel where he is surrounded by mountain bandits, who want to take away his jeweled rings - by chopping off his fingers. A pretty chilling conclusion to the Mandarin's story-arc.
Looking back, this second season Mandarin was pretty awesome. He wasn't used too much (despite being present in every episode), but the few episodes he starred in were a lot better than the entire first season. I thought his anti-technology ideology worked well in contrast to Iron Man's tech-based lifestyle, making the two characters pretty much complete opposites.