(Shane Black, 2013)
It is startling just how many of the situations and beats familiar from Shane Black's previous work - most celebratedly as a screenwriter on action classics, yes, dammit, classics like Lethal Weapon and The Last Boyscout - are present and correct in Iron Man 3.
There's the Christmas setting, a Black obsession. There's the scene where the hero, captured, bound and seemingly hopelessly doomed, calmly tells the evil goons holding him that they're dead, then proceeds somehow to make good on his word. There is also a scene of a mismatched pair of action heroes - in this case Robert Downey Jr as Tony Stark and Don Cheadle as James Rhodes, better known as War Machine, or in this film; the Iron Patriot - bickering amusingly in the middle of much action mayhem.
But more than that, Iron Man 3 has that Shane Black feeling to it, an ability to seem quick-witted and sharp-tongued while dealing in material that seems slightly heavier than anything in the first two Iron Man films, a creative approach to the chaotic destruction demanded by the genre which works because the emotions and audience experience of those kinds of scenes is so well-understood by the storyteller, and the sense that the storyteller in question is just as interested in comedy as action, and indeed, prefers to see the two working in harmony.
Black has always been excellent at the sort of satisfying action beats that a truly great genre film needs, and curiously, that may be where Iron Man 3 is weakest. Super-hero films - Nolan's Batman trilogy apart - inescapably boil down to a scene where cgi characters fight, and what matters then is how well the film sets up that sequence, and how capably it delivers it. The Avengers, for instance, is ok in the set-up, but just about overwhelms the audience with the scale of the climactic action scene, whereas the first two Iron Man films, both directed with vaguely anonymous efficiency by Jon Favreau, returning here in a small part, are good in the set-up but fudged in the climax. Black gets a lot right here - his dialogue (the script is co-written with Drew Pearce, creator of the brilliant and underseen UK superhero sitcom No Heroics) is consistently funny and clever, his villains (Guy Pearce at his smarmiest and Ben Kingsley, surprisingly funny as the kind of Mandarin created to bait fans of the source material) are relatively interesting and their connection to Stark gives the film a nice charge, and the film is full of great, quirky little details that make it feel less of a corporate product than its predecessors.
And the challenge of the superhero genre seems to have brought the best out of him in some ways; he finds inventive ways to make Stark the underdog, and the scenes where he has to fight superpowered thugs with little more than some semi-functioning technology and his considerable wits are the best and most involving action scenes in the movie.
The story finds Stark after the cosmic events of The Avengers having panic attacks while a terrorist named the Mandarin bombs seemingly random targets and a corporate Scientist rival (Pearce's Aldritch Killian) is tinkering with technology provided by an old one-night stand of Starks (Rebecca Hall). Her work seems to allow the body to heal itself, providing Killian with an army of unbeatable soldiers.
It ends up with Stark out of action and hiding out in small-town Tennessee where he teams up with a young boy to repair his malfunctioning armour and get to the bottom of teh mystery of the Mandarin.
Odd scenes stand out for their quality; the bits with Stark and the boy, which should be awful, are instead funny and charming, and an action scene after the bombing of Air Force One is absolutely terrific. Downey Jr owns the role of Stark to the extent that his portrayal almost seems more definitive than the character in the comics - and has massively influenced that character - and Black writes well to his old collaborator's strengths; he knows how to emphasise Downey's wit yet still make him likeable.
As a director, he's similar to Favreau - not much visual identity is evident in his work, but he doesn't get much wrong. And yet, it all comes down to the usual smash-fest in a dockyard, like so many action films, and though it is never boring, I couldn't help but wish I was seeing a bit more of Shane Black and a bit less of Marvel.
Even under corporate and genre constraints he does consistently entertaining work, but off the leash he is capable of so much more. Maybe next time...