Aug 31, 2012

How Green Was My Villainy

Counter-clockwise from left: Ming the Merciless by Hal Foster, Flash Gordon,
March 15 1936; Dr. Julius No as played by Joseph Wiseman, Dr. No, 1962;
The Mandarin by Don Heck, Tales of Suspense #50, February 1964.

So here's a snapshot of an unusual and short-lived trend in animated adaptions. You had these villainous characters across three franchises who were inspired by the original "insidious Oriental," pulp villain Dr. Fu Manchu: Ming the Merciless in Flash Gordon, Dr. Julius No in James Bond, and the Mandarin in Marvel Comics' Iron Man. All were fairly major antagonists - two were essentially the heroes' arch-villains. You couldn't leave them out of an animated adaption, but their original portrayals were maybe not so audience-friendly in more enlightened times. What do you do?

Apparently, you make them green.

"Someone broke my vase! That's
from MY dynasty!"
Of the three cases before us, Ming's hue-shifting in 1986's Defenders of the Earth makes the most internal sense; he was an alien emperor from Mongo, after all, so there's no reason his pigmentation had to be like those of us puny earth-men. However, it would seem the Hearst Corporation didn't feel like this alteration was enough to move Ming away from his roots - the 1996 Flash Gordon cartoon would take the idea one step further and make him into a straight-up lizardman.

"Yes! With this green skin, my elf ears,
and the gems I stole from a spaceship
belonging to an alien dragon, the world
shall fear me as... a bureaucrat of
Imperial China!
The Mandarin, meanwhile, was given an in-story explanation for his greenness in 1994's Iron Man cartoon: the alien gems that gave him power changed his skin color, turned his ears pointy, and buffed up his physique. The logic behind this explanation is given a strange twist, though, by other information in the very episode that depicts it... everything in "The Origin of the Mandarin" points to the Mandarin not being of Asian descent before his transformation. He was archaeologist Arnold Brock, whose character design and portrayal compared to his companion Yinsen implicitly point to him being a white American before going green. It results in his ensuing choice of supervillain name being at best an extension of his stated desire in the episode "to find his destiny" in central Asia, and at worst utter nonsense.

"With my new skin tone, no
one will suspect I'm a racist
stereotype! Mwhaha!"
Dr. No, though... I have no idea what 1991's James Bond Jr. was thinking. Compared to the Nehru jacket and clean-shaven look he sported in the film, his animation model actually ramps up the stereotypical elements, which is not helped by his newfound tendency to employ ninjas. Because... half-Chinese/half-Germans hire ninjas all the time? There was no explanation as to why Dr. No became green, but considering he was supposed to have died in his eponymous film, maybe he was actually undead...

Were these character alterations related? Defenders of the Earth and Iron Man were both by Marvel Productions, but produced almost ten years apart - and James Bond Jr. was by a different studio entirely, Murakami-Wolf-Swenson. No, at best, it seems to have been a very strange series of coincidences: to avoid propagating Yellow Peril stereotypes, these three villains became part of the Mean Green Machine.

Which is probably still better than being on the Green Team, all things considered.

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