Marvel’s original plan for Iron Man 3‘s villain was very different than what we got, with Rebecca Hall’s Maya Hansen set to have a larger role before corporate fears changed these plans. As the first Marvel Cinematic Universe film to hit theaters after The Avengers, anticipation could not have been higher for Iron Man 3 in 2013. Robert Downey Jr.’s final solo film became the highest-grossing solo MCU film to date, as the Shane Black-directed film earned over $1.2 billion worldwide.
The film’s reception was favorable, but the most common criticism of Iron Man 3 is its villains. The Mandarin was sold as the main antagonist for Tony Stark’s next adventure. Ben Kingsley played a reinvented version of a character who has a history of being portrayed as a bad stereotype in the comics. But, Iron Man 3 surprised everyone with it’s Mandarin twist. It was revealed Kingsley’s character was an actor named Trevor Slattery, who was hired by Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce) to act the part of the Mandarin. This change shifted the focus back to Killian for the third act, as he powered himself with Extremis and took the spot as the film’s big bad. Iron Man 3 then ended with Pepper Potts killing Killian and Slattery being sent to prison.
Some viewers found Iron Man 3‘s twist to be a refreshing change from the Marvel formula, but it has also served as one of the more divisive moments in the MCU. The fake-out of including the Mandarin was not universally well-received, although Tony Leung will now play the real Mandarin in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, and Killian’s upgrade was underwhelming. However, this story was only chosen after high ranking Marvel executives forced changes to be made to Iron Man 3‘s villain story.
Just like the prior two installments of the Iron Man franchise, the development of Iron Man 3 saw many changes made to what Shane Black and writer Drew Pearce first developed. Early on, they locked on to the idea of having a female character be the main villain of the film. The female villain of Iron Man 3 was set to be Maya Hansen, giving the character a more significant role than she received in the final script. This early version of Hansen would’ve served a similar function as Killian in Iron Man 3‘s story, where she would be revealed as the antagonist in the third act. Some reports claim that the addition of Mandarin didn’t come until later drafts, but no one involved has directly confirmed that was the case. Instead, Maya would’ve been the one pulling strings on the fake Mandarin and presumably running Advanced Idea Mechanics (AIM), in addition to still inventing Extremis.
This would’ve been the first main female villain in the MCU, a title that instead fell to Hela in Thor: Ragnarok four years later, and multiple actresses circled the part. Early on in development, Emilia Clarke was secretly attached to Iron Man 3 and possibly lined up to play Maya Hansen. Jessica Chastain later entered negotiations after rewrites happened, but she passed on the role and resulted in Rebecca Hall signing on to play Maya instead. She officially joined just a few weeks before production began, but she’s helped reveal some additional details about what the original plan for Maya might’ve entailed. Hall confirmed Maya always was the one who invented Extremis and that she had a turn of heart at the end instead of dying. This would’ve not only changed Maya’s arc from the one she received in Iron Man 3 but altered the movie as a whole.
Instead of sticking with this plan, changes to Iron Man 3 saw Maya Hansen’s role as the main antagonist eliminated. Maya was introduced in the final version of the film in a flashback to New Year’s Eve 1999, where she and Tony were together and cracked the Extremis formula. She reappeared in the present day as a pawn in Killian’s plan, as she was the one who helped kidnap Pepper to get leverage on Tony. Even though Maya tried to save Tony’s life when Killian captured him, her threat to kill herself backfired when Killian killed her.
The decision to change Iron Man 3‘s villain from a woman to a man wasn’t made because of poor writing, though, as toys were directly responsible. It was the belief of Marvel executives at the time that toys based on female characters wouldn’t sell as well as if it was a man. This notion led the Marvel team to force the villain’s gender to be changed to a man just in case kids really wanted to buy action figures for Aldrich Killian. The changes to Maya’s role didn’t stop there though, as Hall even confirmed that her character was significantly reduced while shooting was taking place.
This lesser role for Maya was the direct result of how Marvel, as an entire company, was constructed when Iron Man 3 was in development. Fans are quick to acknowledge Kevin Feige as the one leading the charge, but he didn’t have the control he does now back then. Up until 2015, Marvel Studios still had to answer to Marvel Entertainment and its CEO Ike Perlmutter. Black confirmed in the past that someone high up within Marvel did not like having a female villain in Iron Man 3 and mandated a change needed to be made. Black was never told who wanted the change to be made (but he assured it wasn’t Feige) — just that it had to be done. Since Perlmutter is tied to why the MCU’s slate didn’t include a film led by a woman or person of color until 2018 (after he was out of power), it is largely believed that he is responsible for this change.
Based on what is known about the earlier versions of Iron Man 3‘s script, what Black and Pearce planned at the start had the making for a better sequel. The final version complicates the story by having Maya involved in Killian’s plan, with her only substantial contribution to the mechanics of the story coming when she helps Killian get Pepper. If Maya and Killian were combined as one character, then Iron Man 3 could’ve had a more streamlined narrative. The only way this could’ve been accomplished with the studio mandated changes would be to eliminate Maya from the script, which would’ve been complicated given her and Tony’s history.
Making Maya the main villain of Iron Man 3 also would’ve been a welcomed change for the MCU and superhero movies at large. The idea for Maya not to reveal her true intentions until later in the film could’ve allowed Iron Man 3 to subvert expectations from the audience (and maybe even Tony) that a woman could be the smartest and most powerful person in the room. Instead of potentially highlighting underlying sexism, Iron Man 3 fell prey to real-life misogyny in a quest for potential higher financial gain. This only makes the decision to not make Maya the film’s main villain all the more disappointing, especially when the original story could’ve made for a better film.
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