LOS ANGELES _ There was a time when being a part of a comic-book based movie was considered little more than a way to earn a paycheck.
Ben Kingsley, Michael Caine and Kenneth Branagh share more in common than just being actors from the United Kingdom. All three have been knighted, either won or been nominated for an Oscar and are part of comic-book movies. Caine was Alfred in the "Batman" movies; Branagh directed "Thor."
Sir Ben's venture into the ever-growing genre has him playing The Mandarin in "Iron Man 3." The character first appears in a series of threatening video messages that promise to rain down a terrorist hell on America. It's up to the armored avenger Iron Man to stop him.
Kingsley's seen an evolution in moviemaking to include more in-depth characters in superhero stories, which is why he was willing to take on the role in the big summer movie.
"The offer of doing a comic book movie franchise many years ago would not be as anything attractive as it is now," he says.
"Iron Man" star Robert Downey Jr., points out just how critical it is to have someone with Kingsley's acting gravitas as part of the production.
"The movie is only as good as its bad guy. Once we cast Sir Ben, half our troubles went away," Downey says.
Kingsley read comic books while growing up in England, but except for an occasional "Superman" magazine he was not familiar with American superheroes.
Producers offered to send him a collection of "Iron Man" comics featuring The Mandarin to help inform his performance. He didn't think such research was necessary because the filmmakers had taken the basics and given them a more modern spin.
Kingsley was more inspired by actual news footage of real people who have committed heinous crimes. Because many of his roles have been set in and around the period of World War II, Kingsley's watched hours of news reel footage of the infamous leaders of that time.
What he observed was that all of the dictators had an unswerving sense that their actions were right and they had been selected to lead the world. Kingsley used that as the biggest element to bring The Mandarin to life. Then he trusted the script for the final details.
"The writing gave me lots of clues to the character, such as the fact that he lives in this bubble seen only through these TV broadcasts he does," Kingsley says. "The broadcasts are scripted. They are deliberate. They are delivered as lessons by a teacher _ as he calls himself _ or as Tony Stark describes him as a preacher.
"There's an oddly benign tone to his voice as if he's teaching you something for your own good. However deplorable the politics of what he's saying is, The Mandarin has to convey a sense of complete righteousness, a belief in himself, a belief in his message."
Characters with strong beliefs have always interested Kingsley, such as his Oscar-winning turn in "Ghandi" and his much-heralded work in "Schindler's List." Unlike those films, Kingsley got to jump into an acting area with "Iron Man 3" that tends to thrill performers _ playing a villain.
The key for him to play The Mandarin as a man committed to a mission that he believes is just and true.
"The bad guy thinks he has the answers to the world's problems," Kingsley says. "He doesn't think he's bad. He believes he's here to teach, to preach, to save and to guide the world. But, the franchise also has been fashioned into something so contemporary in its feel that The Mandarin isn't just this cast iron character, impregnable man. He's someone who is a vulnerable man."