Hollywood loves a comeback story, and Shane Black was in need of one. Throughout the 80s and 90s the 51-year-old Iron Man 3 director lived a Hollywood screenwriter’s dream, delivering hit script after hit script and getting paid progressively more for each.
Riding on the success of the Lethal Weapon movies (1987-1992), The Monster Squad (1987), The Last Boy Scout (1991) and Last Action Hero (1993), Black was paid a whopping US$4 million to write 1996’s The Long Kiss Goodnight — one of the most expensive screenplays in history. When the movie tanked, so did his career.
Alcoholism and depression came with the paucity of work. It took Black almost a decade to get another gig, a snazzy neo-noir film called Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, which also marked his directorial debut. It took another eight years for Iron Man 3, a blockbuster Black signed on to after Jon Favreau departed the director’s chair. Black was thrown a lifeline by an old friend and colleague, star Robert Downey Jr.
From a studio perspective, a movie like Iron Man 3 is about as safe a bet as they come. It follows two very successful predecessors and is part of a lucrative franchise that includes movies, comic books and toys. From an artistic perspective, working on a project like this presents a number of constraints. The studio will take greater control, given the extent it impacts their bottom line, and factors such as tone and characters have already been determined. On the other hand, audiences will go in wanting little more than escapism and entertainment along the lines of what they’ve seen before — so in that sense the bar is set fairly low.
The first two Iron Man movies fulfilled that criteria in spades. Peppy paces, fun set pieces, nasal blazing performances from Downey Jr. and strong albeit similar villains (played by Jeff Bridges in the first and Mickey Rourke in the second) helped fuel an upbeat party vibe — a sort of nightclub blockbuster franchise. The third, a shaggier and looser fitting venture, with tonally jarring patches that may be a consequence of the changing of directors, makes a decent fist of it. Amid the predicted Marvel tropes Black slips in moments that feel distinctly his, though never for long: a buddy-buddy pairing of characters, for example, and some relatively obscure references to other productions.
Unlike the second installment, Iron Man 3 doesn’t invest much energy into riffing on the concept of Tony Stark (billionaire playboy-cum-eponymous superhero) as a celebrity, which gave the series an edge by turning the concept of a secret identity on its head. There are few surprises this time around (needless to say, there weren’t many in the first) other than a delicious twist involving a villain character played by Ben Kingsley. A spate of terrorist attacks grab media attention, the President is in trouble, Iron Man must restore peace and order while placating Gwyneth Paltrow, a yada yada. Guy Pearce does his darndest to breathe fire (literally) into a vanilla bad guy whose motivations leave a lot to be desired.
All eyes are on the special effects, which come together particularly well when pieces of Stark’s suit fly onto him bit by bit, leading to some obvious gags (“not the groin!”). There are slow spots but eventually the last act kicks back into gear. The stand-out action sequence comes earlier, mid-air, when our innovative hero rescues a group of falling bodies “monkeys in a barrel style.”
Iron Man 3 was never going to be Shane Black’s definitive comeback movie, even if it goes on to be (as it probably will) a huge success, but it’s certainly a leg up. His next credit will be as a producer of Agent: Century 21, a Mexican drug lord themed action comedy starring Cameron Diaz and Benicio Del Toro.
Iron Man 3’s Australian theatrical release date: April 25, 2013.