Much has already been written, both on these pages and many others, about the landmark Hollywood-China co-production that is Marvel and DMG Entertainment's Iron Man 3. The film, directed by Shane Black, is the third solo outing for Robert Downey Jr's Tony Stark, and has proved a phenomenal success around the world. As it closes in on $1 billion at the global box office, the film is on the cusp of breaking $100 million in China, despite the fact that the producers withdrew their application for official co-production status at the eleventh hour.
We knew ahead of time that the mainland release of Iron Man 3 would feature exclusive footage, filmed in China with homegrown stars Wang Xueqi and Fan Bingbing, But what exactly would these scenes cover? How would they influence or even change the plot? More importantly, why did Marvel and DMG feel it was necessary to add anything in order to lure in a larger audience? After all, The Avengers had been a phenomenal hit in China last year, contributing a healthy $84 million towards its worldwide take of $1.5 billion.
The only way to sufficiently answer these questions was to check out both versions of the film for myself. So, after watching Shane Black's officially approved version of Iron Man 3 twice, I headed north - Mandarin-speaking girlfriend reluctantly in tow - to discover exactly what Chinese audiences see when they see Iron Man 3.
It should go without saying that in order to adequately explain and contexualise the differences between the two versions of the film, this article will reveal important plot points that may spoil your enjoyment of Iron Man 3. You have been warned.
No Eiffel 65
After Stark's opening voiceover we are transported back to 1999 and the Y2K party in Switzerland. To get us in the mood, Black ironically uses the song Blue (Da Ba De) by Italian Eurodance group Eiffel 65. However, Chinese audiences get a Mandarin-language cover version. Same tune, different lyrics in a wholly different language, kinda missing the point somewhat. Who produced this new version is left a mystery, however, as the soundtrack credits at the end of the film do not include this track.
While "Mandarin Blue" assaults our ears, the Marvel logo, followed by the Paramount logo appear on the screen. They are then followed by the DMG Entertainment logo - the Chinese company who co-funded the film, and was responsible for producing the new content.
Introducing Dr. Wu
During the aforementioned Y2K party, Stark meets Ho Yinsen (played by Shaun Toub, who he will meet again in an Afghani cave in Iron Man) who introduces him to a Dr. Wu (beloved Mainland star Wang Xueqi). In the international version of the film, Stark all but ignores Wu, who utters nothing more than a quick "How are you?" before Stark is distracted by Rebecca Hall's Maya Hansen. Here, however, they are not interupted quite so soon. Yinsen explains to Stark that Wu is a highly-praised surgeon who has been doing ground-breaking research that may prove useful to Stark. Our hero expresses interest and invites Wu to "party together" with him, but Wu seems unimpressed. "Some other time", Stark shrugs, before then turning his attentions to Hansen.
Dr Wu makes a call
Events proceed uninterrupted until Stark's impromptu press conference outside the hospital. After baiting The Mandarin and revealing his home address on national TV, the film then cuts to China. Dr. Wu sits in his office, watching news coverage of Iron Man's recent PR mission to China. We see the Avenger standing with Wu, surrounded by a group of cheering children. He then flies off, to rapturous applause. Wu then makes a phone call, to whom is unclear, but he is looking for Stark. Wu is worried that he has not fully recovered from the events in New York - something we know to be true - and Wu wants to meet with Stark asap. It is never explained to whom Wu is speaking, nor how they might be able to help him track down Stark. Why doesn't Wu just call him directly, or call S.H.I.E.L.D.?
Scrubbing up with Fan Bingbing
Cut to the end of the film. Pepper Potts, jacked up on Extremis has killed Aldrich Killian, and Stark has begun his hasty voiceover, tying up all the loose plot strands quickly, but without adequate explanation. We still don't know for sure how Pepper has Extremis removed from her system, but once Stark gets to talking about himself we cut once again to China, and the gorgeous Fan Bingbing. She struts purposefully down a corridor, hair and lab coat billowing behind her like she's just stepped out of a salon. This is Dr. Wu Jiaqi, assistant (and according to some sources, wife) of Wang's Dr. Wu.
Now in their O.R. scrubs, Wu and Wu - okay, Wang and Fan - are prepping for surgery. They are concerned, worried about the procedure they are about to perform. It is incredibly risky, potentially very dangerous. Should they risk the life of the world's greatest hero? They must, what choice do they have? It is an incredibly strange scene, so melodramatic it feels like we have stumbled out of a Hollywood blockbuster and into a CCTV soap opera. With both characters wearing face masks and hair nets, everything is emoted through doe-eyed stares and earnest brow-furrowing.
Wu takes another call
Stark reprises his voiceover, revealing that Wu was able to remove the shard of shrapnel from his chest. Stark is now free of the arc reactor, and a whole person once again. We then cut back to Dr. Wu's office, where he takes another phone call from the mystery voice on the phone. Wu takes praise for the success of the operation.
Credit where it's due
Stark tosses his arc reactor into the ocean, before driving off with the proclamation that "I am Iron Man". Cue retro-style credits. And there they are - Wang Xueqi, followed by Fan Bingbing - each getting their own namecheck and animated freeze frame credit ahead of "with Jon Favreau".
No post-credits scene
This is the most perplexing change of all, even more so than the replacement of Eiffel 65 or Wu's lengthy conversations with who-knows-who. The Avengers was a huge hit in China last year, as it was everywhere else. Audiences there understand that Iron Man 3 is part of an ongoing franchise, which often link together through amusing reveals after the credits. However, at the end of Iron Man 3 in China, there was nothing. Just the DMG logo again. Where was Bruce Banner dozing off to Tony Stark's paranoid ramblings? Nowhere to be seen. That said, clearly my audience had got wind of this ahead of time, or simply didn't care, as long before the credits were done, we were the only two people left in the theatre. The credits music had been turned off, replaced by cheesy Mando-pop piped in from the lobby, the house lights were up and the cleaning staff were literally sweeping up around us as we waited desperately to see what happened.
What should be obvious from these changes is that they are both inconsequential and baffling. I have it on good authority that a lot more footage was shot in China by DMG, but is now nowhere to be seen. When Wang Xueqi's involvement was announced, he was quoted as saying he was only joining the project because his character was substantial and pivotal to the plot. While pedants may argue that Wu saves Stark's life and is therefore of vital importance, it is almost inconceivable that what was finally included was enough to persuade Wang to sign up.
The big question here is why Marvel felt it was necessary to add anything at all to the film. The Avengers proved that Chinese audiences are already invested in these characters and this universe - they don't need homegrown talent onscreen to part with their cash. In the screening I attended, many audience members were already on their feet and walking out by the time Fan Bingbing appears onscreen. Many of those who did remain could be heard giggling at the actress' awkward, out-of-place appearance. I don't know anybody willing to contest that these additional sequences improve the film in any way, or helped sway ticket sales (apart from mine, obviously).
Either way, Iron Man 3 is doing great business north of the border, whether because or in spite of this additional footage. It follows in the footsteps of Rian Johnson's Looper and John Lucas & Scott Moore's 21 & Over, both of which also featured additional footage in their mainland versions. With Michael Bay's Transformers 4 likely to follow suit when it begins shooting later this year, there are no immediate signs of this phenomenon letting up, despite the lack of any conclusive proof that it's what the people want.