If Iron Man 3 had been made by a young director who very few people had heard of, his name would now be on everyone’s lips in Hollywood, and not just because he delivered a big hit movie. They’d be talking about his eagerness and speed and raw talent, the dark flash of his visual style, the zigzag precision of his flair of violence, his way of making every performance count. They’d be talking about how this young director had infused a franchise blockbuster — a Part 3, no less, which usually means that a series, no matter how popular it is, is running low on creative octane — with the quality that so many comic-book movies have lacked: the feeling that what we’re seeing actually matters, that something is at stake beyond the global box-office grosses.
Of course, the director of Iron Man 3 isn’t exactly a whippersnapper. He’s an old familiar name, one from a different era entirely. And maybe it’s because Shane Black made his reputation as the screenwriter of Lethal Weapon, with a story and character credit on its three sequels, and those movies never really went away, that the latest twist in his career has been greeted, for all the enthusiasm about Iron Man 3 itself, in a rather ho-hum fashion. “Oh, him. The guy who wrote Lethal Weapon and The Last Boy Scout. So now he’s a director. With a big comic-book movie. What else is new?”
But wait a minute. That attitude doesn’t begin to do justice to the extraordinary leap that Shane Black has made, and to what a total out-of-the-box surprise it is. He’s now 51, but he directs Iron Man 3 with a wide-awake flair and a special-effects bravura that trumps most of the fantasy filmmakers in Hollywood. (As much as I liked The Avengers, Iron Man 3 is a more elegantly brash and surprising film, with effects that make the miraculous look casual.) Consider, for a moment, the movies that first planted Black in the soil of Hollywood fame. Lethal Weapon, released in 1987, was Black’s first produced screenplay (he was then a 26-year-old brat), and the first time I saw it, at an all-media screening on a Monday night in Boston, I recognized its Superior Road-Tested Entertainment Qualities, but I found those very qualities to be a little depressing, because I saw what a break from the past a movie like this one represented. In the ’80s, everyone talked about how fantasy and thrill rides were taking over, and since the trend famously went back to Jaws and Star Wars (and to a movie that was just as influential but that almost no one talks about in this context: The Exorcist), Hollywood’s transition into a full-time factory of escapism was basically about the rise of deeply unreal genres: science fiction, masked-bogeyman horror, the over-the-top steroid action of Schwarzenegger and Stallone, and so on.
By contrast, the genre of big-city enforcers like the L.A. street cops of Lethal Weapon had its roots in a far grittier time, going back to movies like The French Connection. The “craziness” of Mel Gibson’s Martin Riggs was a knockoff of Gene Hackman’s obsessive, get-a-life Popeye Doyle. Even in the early ’80s, the fusion of crime, comedy, and action had been brought off with a brilliant combustibility in 48 HRS., which was, in its way, a crackerjack original — a real Saturday-night special of a movie. Lethal Weapon turned it into a Saturday-night not-so-special, amusing but second-rate, full of high jinks and boilerplate. Yes, the testy banter of Gibson and Danny Glover had real snap to it, and Gibson’s wild-eyed self-destructive fury now looks like more of a Method performance than anyone at the time might have guessed, but there was a connect-the-police-dots conventionality about Lethal Weapon that made it, in my view, an enemy of adventurous moviemaking. The whole thing, in its knowing way, was such a smirky, processed concoction that it singlehandedly transformed the buddy cop thriller into something that stomped out reality as much as Conan the Barbarian or Ghostbusters or A Nightmare on Elm Street ever did.
There’s no denying that Shane Black had talent. But as the decade progressed, his gift for zippy, quip-laden derivative screenplays seemed to be superceded by his genius for getting studio executives to pay him buckets of money because he’d convinced them that they needed him to make another winner. By the time he wrote The Last Boy Scout, a 1991 pulp-crime buddy comedy that paired Bruce Willis and Damon Wayans, he got paid $1.75 million for it, which was unheard of at the time. And even though the movie was actually good fun, the press beat up on it, probably because a lot of critics felt compelled to make Black into a whipping boy for the age of high-body-count, empty-calorie snark.
Black responded by becoming more ambitious, but as he did, his movies got worse. In 1993, he wrote the infamously inert, deadly structured Arnold dud Last Action Hero, and then, in 1996, he wrote The Long Kiss Goodnight, in which he began to combine violence with a new kind of cutesy self-consciousness. About six months before it came out, I found myself on a panel with Black at the 1996 Cannes Film Festival, and I had a revealing encounter with him. I was making the point that with the collapse of the mid-budget movie, films were now starting to fall, more than ever, onto either side of a mainstream/indie blockbuster/art divide. I’d argue that the past 17 years have borne out this perception, and I hardly thought it was controversial to begin with, but Black took major offense at it. He thought I was ghettoizing mainstream Hollywood filmmaking as “non-artistic.” And he thought that was pure snobbery. What I took away from the encounter was surprise, almost to the point of being impressed, at his over-sensitivity on the issue of whether or not he was an artist.
Well, I’m happy to say that I finally understand why Shane Black got pissed off at me on that panel. Because in Iron Man 3, he takes the standard spare parts of comic-book material and layers them into a machine that aims high. Part of what I love about the movie is that it powerfully embraces its status as a middle installment. As a kid, when I read comics, the origin story was never the essence of it; it was the way that the mythologies got spun into ever deeper and darker episodes, where the hero’s powers did battle with his flawed humanity. As I recall, even the most super-amazing of these dudes never seemed more alive than when they were stripped of their capes, and in Iron Man 3, that’s just what Black does to Tony Stark, crash-landing him in Tennessee with a suit of short-circuited Iron Man armor. No wonder Robert Downey Jr.’s performance acquires a new urgency: That motor mouth is now just about the only weapon Tony’s got, and he knows that it’s not enough. “We create our own demons,” says Tony in the opening line of the movie, and that line means a few things at once: that a hero like Tony will always battle his own demons of anxiety and self-doubt; and that a bad guy like the Mandarin, in his exploitation of the global-media world, may be as much of a “creation” as he is a reality. (I won’t spoil the film’s big twist, but I will say that it’s a fascinating comment on Osama bin Laden’s status as a mastermind who was also marketed by al-Qaeda as a cave-bound terrorist superhero in headdress and Army fatigues.) There’s an audacity to the imagination at work in Iron Man 3, and Black, who co-wrote the script (with Drew Pearce), seems to have liberated himself from the leaden hipster coyness that defined his only previous film as a director, the 2005 how-to-make-a-cult-movie-as-if-it-came-in-a-kit Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. Sorry, I know a lot of people love it, but that movie, which also starred Downey, suggested, at least to me, a corrupt studio executive’s egregiously synthetic knockoff of a Tarantino crime caper. (It was full of cringe-worthy lines like, “I was tired, I was pissed, I was wetter than Drew Barrymore at a grunge club.” Ugh!)
The most untrue cliché of all time may be the F. Scott Fitzgerald quote that says, “There are no second acts in American lives.” Actually, there are many second acts, and third acts too, and I feel as if Shane Black, who might have wound up a relic of the Simpson-Bruckheimer age, is suddenly on a third act that may end up transcending everything he has done before. Okay, he wrote a couple of fun (forgettable) cop movies. He then added a pinch of meta to the equation, which turned out to be a pinch more than audiences wanted. Whatever you think of Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, it came out eight years ago, and it’s his last screen credit. He seemed played out. Now comes along a movie, in a genre that he’s never worked in, one of insanely demanding technological logistics, and the guy just nails it to an awesome degree. In Iron Man 3, Shane Black updates the old school and makes it look effortless, reinventing himself as someone who I hope will keep making movies for the next 20 years.
So what’s your favorite Shane Black film? And do you see a link between Iron Man 3 and his earlier work?
Follow Owen on Twitter: @OwenGleiberman