By Anthony Breznican
May 04, 2013 at 09:09 PM EDT

SPOILER ALERT! Here’s fair warning: Don’t read this unless you’ve already seen Iron Man 3.

Winston Churchill famously described Russia as “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.” Swaddle those things one more time in a green, gold-fringed robe and you can also apply that phrase to Ben Kingsley’s villain The Mandarin in Iron Man 3.

Except … when the core of the character finally comes to light, we get a revelation that few could have expected from such an iconic comic-book badass.

EW spoke with the filmmakers and can now peel back the four layers of this super-villain twist to show how — and why — it all happened this way …

Layer 1. Mandarin backstory: Why he was cut from the first Iron Man

Layer 2. Spoiler Room: How Iron Man 3 warps the classic villain

Layer 3. Why Marvel said yes …

Layer 4. They deceived us all — by never lying

And for old-times’ sake, when you get done with this behind-the-scenes exploration of The Mandarin, here’s some more Marvel goodness: a flashback to last year’s The Avengers, and how that secret, post-credits shawarma scene came together.

Start The Mandarin journey here —

For more comic book film news:

Follow @breznican

“If you were forced to say, ‘who is Iron Man’s greatest foe,’ you’d probably have to say The Mandarin,” says producer and Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige. “It’s not because he’s been in a ton of quintessentially classic stories — because he hasn’t been, really. He’s just been around a lot. He just goes back a long, long time.”

The Mandarin made his first appearance in Tales of Suspense #50 in 1964. In the comic book mythology, he was was a Chinese exile who ends up exploring a remote, forbidden valley where he finds the ruins of a crashed alien spaceship. Inside the craft, he discovers ten power rings, each with a different ability, which allow him to unleash havoc on the world.

When Feige and Co. were putting together the first Iron Man movie, it seemed like a natural decision: The villain had to be The Mandarin. They even announced he would be the heavy when they first came to Comic-Con in 2006.

“He was in every Iron Man 1 script until about 10 weeks before we started filming,” says Feige. “He was a contemporary of Tony Stark. He was younger. He was involved in business deals with [Stark.]” This Mandarin was trying to secure Stark’s vast weapons manufacturing resources, and Jeff Bridges’ character — Obadiah Stane, a mentor of Stark’s, would have been a kind of sidekick villain. “We’d have revealed that Obadiah was the mole on the inside,” Feige says. “But it did’t work. It didn’t work.”

So they took it out. And Obadiah Stane was promoted to Public Enemy No. 1, sporting a primitive form of the armor for a final battle as the Iron Monger. “So Mandarin has always been this sort of thing where, ‘Boy, we’d love to do the Mandarin — but thank God we took The Mandarin out of Iron Man 1.”

The Mandarin didn’t make the cut for Iron Man 2 either, with Mickey Rourke’s Whiplash serving as the main heavy instead. Tom Hiddleston’s celestial troublemaker Loki was the prime antagonist in The Avengers. But when it came time to produce Iron Man 3 — what could be the last of the Tony Stark stand-alone films (at least for several years) — they finally decided to pull the trigger on Iron Man’s “greatest” foe.

But there was still a problem.

“Marvel was of a mind … they wanted to know how to do the Mandarin,” Iron Man 3 director and co-writer Shane Black tells EW.

“Part of it was that we would rather have the Mandarin be of indeterminate ethnicity than the Fu Manchu stereotype that the comic books portrayed, but that’s not the only reason,” Black says. “I wanted to do something that was an interesting story choice, that felt like there was a little bit of satire, that was a little bit about our own fear and our own ways of viewing villains.”

Love or hate it, you can’t deny that what they ultimately did to this version of The Mandarin was a bold and risky choice.

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“Some people call me a terrorist. I consider myself a teacher,” Ben Kingsley’s version of The Mandarin snarled in early previews. “Lesson #1: Heroes – there is no such thing.”

Interesting word choice there, because it turns out that his villain … is also “no such thing.”

The terrorist who takes over the television airwaves to claim responsibility for various bombings around the world is a front, a sham. The Mandarin is created as way to make high-tech bio-accidents look like purposeful attacks on the military, by way of protecting the developers whose healing Extremis serum sometimes has volatile, catastrophic side effects for its users — causing them to detonate like living bombs.

Kingsley’s true character? A clueless, cowering, dim-witted actor named Trevor.

It’s not that The Mandarin isn’t in the movie — it’s just that he’s not the character you think he is, which leads to one of the most unexpected twists in the mythology of any recent superhero saga. Instead we find out that Guy Pearce’s scientist-entrepreneur Aldrich Killian is the true mastermind, although in the Extremis graphic novel, he is merely a desperate scientist who commits suicide after selling the formula to a domestic terror group.

In Iron Man 3, the character gets to go full on Big Bad. “Ultimately we do give you the Mandarin, the real guy, but it’s Guy Pearce in the end with the big dragon tattooed on his chest,” Black says. “He says, ‘You don’t understand, I’ve been this guy since I was born. I’ve been embodying him in this [actor] that I’ve had proxying for me, but it’s really me.'”

Feige notes that every character in the movies — from Tony Stark to his various villains — has some degree of variation from the comics.

“There was a point where it becomes an extreme change,” Feige acknowledges. “It was nerve wracking.”

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It was not an easy choice to greenlight, but Marvel chief Feige says it’s sometimes important to break with tradition, even at the risk of alienating some purists. “Shane really had a lot of great ideas about identity and about false faces and about anonymity,” he said.

Black and co-writer Drew Pearce proposed this argument in favor of The Mandarin twist: “What if he’s sort of this all-things-to-all-people uber-terrorist? What if he is the myth, and in the end that is what we’re dealing with, a created myth that [a research group] has perpetuated and cobbled together using elements from popular consciousness,” Black says. “It felt like it said more about the world we live in than just having [Iron Man] fight another terrorist, as opposed to putting a spin on it that said something about the way we view terror, perhaps.”

“What it says to me is, we have to be careful. We want to find villains in the world, but it’s a complex world,” Black adds. “If you’re smart in this world, you’ll rule by proxy because the minute you stick your face out there and assign yourself to the role of international villain you become this symbolic target.”

Was it hard to persuade Marvel to take that leap with one of its classic villains?

“Do they hand me a blank check and say, ‘Go break something!’ Or, ‘Go violate some long-standing comic book treaty that fans have supported for years?’ No, but they’ll say: ‘Let’s break something together,'” Black says. “So it’s okay to come up with these crazy things, these far out ideas … and they’ll fly. It’s just that the Marvel guys have to be in the room.”

The other truly shocking thing is that the movie’s secret managed to stay under wraps. There were no early revelations of the twist, and most outlets have refrained from discussing it in a story like this until after the movie opened. Now, of course, it’s fair game to discuss.

So now let’s look back at how the filmmakers protected that secret.

“We’ve been very honest,” Feige notes.

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This recent TV spot includes some lines that become quite revealing in retrospect: Stark’s declaration, “You’re not a man!” is just one.

“You’ll never … see me … coming,” snarled by Kingsley’s character, is another. We sure didn’t.

Iron Man becomes Irony Man.

Marvel first showed off Kingsley as The Mandarin in footage shown at Comic-Con last July — which included that intimidating, Nixonian voice over about how there is “no such thing” as heroes. That was only the first time they tipped their hand about truth and fiction.

In October, Marvel publicly debuted the first images of Kingsley’s character in EW, and Feige gave an interview explaining some of the details of this interpretation.

One of the first things we addressed was the character’s complicated heritage.

Kingsley is not, of course, Chinese, but Feige says they wanted to blur the background of this version of The Mandarin. “It’s less about his specific ethnicity than the symbolism of various cultures and iconography that he perverts for his own end,” Feige says. From his samurai hair, to his royal robe, to his bin Laden-esque beard, and the AK-47 he keeps at his side, Kingsley’s interpretation is a hodgepodge of various warrior motifs.

Again, without revealing the twist, Feige was still being totally honest about The Mandarin. He spoke the truth about how the character was an amalgamation of symbols, skewed for the purposes of the true wrongdoers.

It was in that interview that Feige confirmed the Ten Rings worn by The Mandarin would not be magical alien artifacts, despite the existence of extra-terrestrials being a big part of the climactic battle in The Avengers.

Here’s another hint Feige coyly dropped, which reads very differently after you actually have seen the movie.

“A lot of this movie is about characters going back into the shadows for various reasons and characters who have been in the shadows coming out and into the light for the first time,” Feige says. “It is Tony who, for various reasons, finds himself receding into the darkness. I don’t mean emotional darkness, I mean literally ducking out of the spotlight. And we’ll see other characters stepping up who have pulled strings from the background, starting to show their hand.”

He’s talking about The Mandarin, all right. But it’s Pearce’s Mandarin, and not Kingsley’s.

Well played, Marvel. Sometimes truth is the most powerful deceiver.

For more comic book film news:

Follow @breznican

Read More:

Beyond ‘Iron Man 3’: New images and revelations from Marvel’s Phase Two

‘Iron Man 3′: The 10 weirdest things in the new trailer

‘The Avengers‘: The (spoilerish) backstory behind that secret, last-minute shawarma scene

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