I purchased Iron Man 3 for my friend David for his birthday and that got me thinking more about how the Mandarin could have been handled better than in the actual film. I've blogged about this already, but I've recently thought of another "how I would have done it" that would work in Killian Aldrich, since Guy Pearce did a good job playing him.
So begin the movie the same way, with Tony Stark blowing off the admiring, sickly Killian at a New Year's Eve party, then having his fun with (and presumably ditching immediately afterward) Maya Hansen. Both having been ill-treated by Tony, the two join forces presumably as they did before the main plot begins. However, given how they both were trying to get Tony's support, I'm assuming they're going to need an outside investor. Who do they seek out?
The Mandarin. Early in the movie it seems like Killian is a subordinate or even disciple of the Mandarin and we can play this straight. The Mandarin provides the capital for Killian and Maya to develop the Extremis project, ostensibly for good ends, but the Mandarin has his own agenda. Given his comic book origins, perhaps he seeks to restore the historic dominance of the East over the West, and what better way to do it than use the never-ending War on Terror to bankrupt and demoralize the United States? It's like Palpatine's gambit in the Clone Wars, only the mastermind is the terrorist and not the Chancellor. This way, we can still use the Extremis exploding-soldier plot and Killian's original conspiracy, including the traitorous Vice President.
We can combine Maya's treachery and Killian's longstanding crush on Pepper Potts to cause drama between Tony and Pepper. Pepper remarks that Killian used to ask her out all the time in the kind of annoyed and slightly amused way a pretty popular girl might view a persistent (but non-threatening) nerdy suitor, only to be taken aback to see the stud-muffin post-Extremis Killian. This, and Tony's resulting jealousy, was one of the more amusing parts of the film. If Maya allies herself with Tony, the fact she was one of Tony's many one-night stands during his Jerkass phase could cause issues with Pepper. Killian tries to play on this to woo Pepper himself, resorting to kidnapping and forcible Extremis-izing only when this doesn't work. Due to his health issues, Killian owes so much more to the Mandarin than Maya and could remain loyal out of gratitude for the help in overcoming his disability--and if getting his hands on Pepper at long last is part of the bargain, so much the better.
(In this interview, Guy Pearce's description of Killian's lifelong efforts to overcome the disabilities he was born with make him sound rather sympathetic. This desire would make him vulnerable to manipulation by someone who can cure his disabilities and grateful enough to this benefactor he might be willing to ignore his conscience. Pearce's interview also suggests that while Pepper would never give the sickly, annoying pre-Extremis Killian a second glance, the handsome and confident post-Extremis Killian is an entirely different beast. But if Killian is still weak at his core the way the TVTropes page on him suggests, he could freak out and kidnap Pepper and subject her to the painful and dangerous Extremis process rather than confidently assuming he could "win" her as a triumph over Tony in a non-coercive manner.)
The final act occurs per canon, only instead of Killian killing Maya and Extremis minions capturing Colonel Rhodes and stealing the Iron Patriot armor, it's the Mandarin himself. Not only is he a plotting mastermind behind a worldwide conspiracy reaching all the way to the White House, not only is he a Corrupter playing a sickly and unconfident man for his own purposes, but he wields the until-now-unrevealed power of the Ten Rings (which could be explained in some throwaway line hinting to their alien origins). I could imagine Rhodes being assigned to protect Maya now that she's defected, but the Vice President reveals this to the Mandarin, who comes to punish her personally and defeats Rhodes to do it. Then he assigns one of his Extremis minions to use the Iron Patriot armor to kidnap the president, leading to the final battle.
This battle would be similar to the actual film, only bigger--Extremis-ized Pepper escapes and fights Killian while Tony battles the Mandarin directly. And given how powerful Killian is, it might take them both to bring him down (as it did in the film), allowing the Mandarin to escape to fight Tony again in a future film. Had Shane Black and the other Powers That Be went with this approach, Guy Pearce's performance as Killian could have been largely retained (and, like Maya, he's a sympathetic tragic figure and not just a vindictive creep), the classic Mandarin could still be used, and the theme of "Tony's previous bad behavior comes back to bite him" can be continued.
Of course, that might require someone other than Shane Black running the show and no investment money from China...
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