So what does it mean? It’s obviously there to be seen and get fans talking, and it seems unlikely that Marvel would let something that looks this much like a continuity-reference slip in by accident. So what’s going on here? I have some theories…
It’s almost-certainly symbolic of something. We now know that the world at large has always known about Captain America – at least, they know that a superhuman in a costume fought in WWII and re-appeared in 2012 – and we saw people getting shield tats at the end of “Avengers.” Swapping out the star for anything would mean the equivalent of doing the same to the American flag: Making a statement.
But what’s it doing on The Mandarin? Or what looks like The Mandarin? Three ideas, top of my head:
1.) That’s not The Mandarin. That’s someone else doing the impersonate-the-bad-guy thing, and the tattoo is a giveaway. So who is it? You can kind-of see what might be the rim of glasses, but otherwise who’s to say? Crazy-unlikely out-of-left-field guess: It’s The Winter Soldier, making an introductory cameo prior to “Captain America: The Winter Soldier.” Also fun possibilities: Ant-Man, Bruce Banner or the ACTUAL Captain America.
2.) The Mandarin is an Anarchist, and this is his symbol. The terrorists in “Iron Man” called their group “The Ten Rings,” a Mandarin reference, and the trailer includes a shot of The Mandarin wearing the actual Ten Rings just like in the comics – so it can be assumed he was pulling their strings. What we don’t know, yet, is if he’s still exclusively running Brand-X Al-Qaeda’s or if he’s branched out into manipulating other “movements” to his owns ends. Fronting an American Anarchist group would be a topical twist, though also uncomfortably close to Bane’s gambit in “Dark Knight Rises.”
3.) The Mandarin is a Super Soldier. In “classic” Marvel lore, a whole slew of good guys and bad guys got their abilities from unsuccessful attempts to replicate the experiment that created Captain America. In the Marvel Movieverse, that’s part of the backstory of both The Hulk and The Abomination. Why make this leap for The Mandarin? Well…
Firstly, I’m expecting he won’t have his “I found alien technology” origin here. Be interesting if he did (there’s certainly a shitload of it all over the place after the finale of “Avengers”) but since “Avengers” made it clear that Thor’s arrival on Earth was modern Earth’s “first contact” I doubt thats how it’s going to work here. So he’s probably going to need a new backstory, right? Well, think about his “place” in the Marvel movies:
People forget this because the surprise-ending drowned out everything else, but before “Iron Man” opened the “big deal” was that it was going to be THE post-9/11 superhero movie – the trailers were all selling “Tony Stark blasts the FUCK out of The Terrorists” as the main thrust of the narrative. Well, if the Ten Rings are Al-Qaeda, that’d make The Mandarin Osama bin Laden. Remember bin Laden’s origin story? He was recruited/trained by U.S. agencies to work agains the Soviets in Afghanistan, then went rogue.
Well, what if they keep that paralell going and THAT’S his “thing” here? An Asian/Mid-East attempt at making a Super Soldier (“tagged” with this tattoo for designation) who turned on his masters? It’d certainly give him an excuse to bust out some extra-human abilities to make him a threat to the guy essentially wearing a tank, and it would tie back in with this specific franchise’s “unintended consequences of weapon-making” theme.