I try not to do a lot of prefacing before I get to the meat of my movie reviews, but for this one it seems necessary, so here goes: I saw a lot of Shane Black movies in the late eightes/early nineties. As an only child with no restrictions on what types of movies I was allowed to watch, the R-rated Lethal Weapon movies were to me what The Goonies and The Sandlot are to other kids (even as a 10-year-old, I had a knee-jerk disdain for anything I perceived as treating me like a child, I even hated the Ninja Turtles). I got in trouble at school more than once for parroting Mel Gibson’s creative methods of telling his captain go f*ck himself. Today I can still quote my favorite lines from even lesser Shane Black films, like The Last Boy Scout (“I think I f*cked a squirrel to death”) and The Long Kiss Goodnight (“Nah, I just sock ‘em in the jaw and yell ‘pop goes the weasel.'”). Hell, I even liked Last Action Hero. And this was years before I even knew Shane Black’s name, or that it was the same guy writing all those scripts. I always wondered if my affinity for Shane Black was just a right-time, right-place situation, with his scripts being popular and me being young and stupid at about the same time. But now that I’ve seen the Shane Black-directed and co-written Iron Man 3 well past the age when I should’ve acquired discerning taste and reason? Bros, I’m here to tell you that my youthful stupidity was downright prophetic.
Iron Man 3 blows the first two out of the water. The first had a certain beef-headed charm, and was notable for being the first to present Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark, one of the all-time great casting choices. And of course, ROCKET HANDS. The second was an extended trailer for The Avengers, best forgotten, apart from Sam Rockwell smirking and Mickey Rourke’s parrot. Frankly, I wasn’t looking forward to a third. And then… All the weirdness surrounding Sir Ben Kingsley playing The Mandarin – an ethnically ambiguous sort-of Indian actor playing an ethnically ambiguous sort-of Chinese villain, who seemed to have been based on an earlier generation’s romanticized stereotypes about the Chinese and who in the movie speaks with consonant-heavy, Amerrrrican Innnnndian-esque a-rrrregional accent – all of it crystallizes in a character reveal that not only manages to make all of that make sense (!!!), but is easily the funniest scene in any superhero movie to date. And I’m counting the unintentional humor in Daredevil or the Fantastic Four movies. Was Iron Man 3 a silly movie? Oh my, heavens yes. But after that scene I would’ve followed it anywhere.
True, it starts off a little rocky. We open in a nightclub in 1999, and as an aside, even that reveal is a subtle example of Shane Black’s superb comedic timing. You hear “Blue (Da Ba Dee)” by Eiffel 65 playing over the opening credits and wonder what the hell is going on, if we’ve traveled through some wormhole and landed in the same headspace that led a person to put a Prodigy song in the Fast 6 trailer. That’s when the legend “1999” flashes on screen, and suddenly we’re back in the Shire, feeling relieved, the song a joke, the world explained. So anyway, Tony is clubbing with with his right-hand man Happy, played by Jon Favreau, who looks like he’s been trying to beat Vince Vaughn in a hot dog-eating contest for the past five years, with Tony casually dismissing some fellow scientists whom you just know are going to spend the next 15 years or so bitterly planning elaborate ways to murder him. Fast forward to the present, when a newly-unretired Tony, speaking through reporters, tells mysterious new terror threat The Mandarin to do his worst, and offers up his home address. Which, sidenote, seems hilariously unnecessary, because Tony Stark lives here:
You need an address to find that? You could see that shit from space.
That sets up the scene of Tony’s house being leveled that you see in the trailer, a scene I imagine only exists so that it could be put in the trailer. It’s a pretty dumb scene on a lot of levels, but how often do we see a superhero talk tough only to make a total ass of himself seconds later? It’s this gazillion-dollar action set piece, that’s basically the story equivalent of Tony slipping on a banana peel and landing goatee first in a pile of dog poop. Imagine Bruce Wayne making an ass of himself like that in any of the Dark Knight movies. The tendency with most superhero movies is to make everything BIGGER, GRITTIER, MORE BADASS. Realism is their stated goal, but they tend to leave out a central tenet of reality, that humans are fallible and stupid. Shane Black, on the other hand, takes the biggest action set piece of his entire movie and uses it to illustrate brain farts and human error. How cool is that? The execution is a little wonky, but watching a Shane Black movie is like listening to a noisy garage band, where no matter how sloppily they skronk through a verse, when they tighten up and hit that sing-along chorus, it somehow sounds even better, like because they’ve proved themselves incapable of the sophistication required for pretense that you’re hearing their very essence. The lack of polish becomes a virtue.
If Joss Whedon’s superhero sensibility was kitsch, Shane Black’s is pulp. They share wit and a certain tongue-in-cheek sensibility, but Black’s cleverness is less self-referential, his characters mostly wink at each other, not the audience. It’s occasionally hokey, but more in a borscht belt comedy sort of way, as opposed to an obscure, post-structuralist Ryan Gosling Tumblr account sort of way that congratulates itself for its own obscurity. Snappy one-liners without the one-off references to make you feel like you’re part of some special little club. Or maybe there were those references and I just missed them because they weren’t served up under a chrome cloche that says “REFERENCE” like Whedon tends to do. That’s what references are supposed to be – things that are there if you want to look for them, but serve the story even if you don’t. When I asked Burnsy about the movie, he said “if you don’t know what each of the Iron Man suits was from the comics, you’re apparently a moron. That’s what I learned when I didn’t know that the big fat Iron Man was the Hulkbuster suit.” Me, I just thought Tony built a buttload of suits and one was bigger because kablooey. That seemed like a perfect plausible thing for Tony Stark to do.
Even Tony’s relationship with the little kid, which would be thoroughly wank-inducing in the hands of just about anyone else, works, partly because the kid isn’t too precocious and partly because Tony isn’t too nice to him. Tony’s mostly a dick but will be nice to the kid every once in a while, the trick of pick-up artists and withholding fathers everywhere. It works. It seems to be a movie written by and for smartasses.
Comparing Iron Man 3 to other superhero movies, and really other action comedies, feels like comparing South Park to Family Guy. In Iron Man 3, the humor feels inseparable to the story, whereas everything else feels like it’s jumping back and forth between “here’s a funny part!” and “here’s a badass part!” With Shane Black, you don’t have to parachute outside of the story in order to laugh. Humor is great, but not when it feels forced. Remember when every commercial didn’t try to be high-larious? Those were the days. Now we have the Geico pig doing callbacks to jokes that were nightmarishly unfunny to begin with. If you want a perfect blueprint for how not to do action-comedy, watch 30 Minutes or Less, where the screenwriter adapted a dark story about a guy with a remote bomb on his neck forced to rob a bank, and then at every break in the action thought “ooh, here’s where I can squeeze in Aziz Ansari’s best riff about frozen pizza!” If the jokes are interchangeable to the story, what’s the point? Shane Black does humor in a way that doesn’t defeat the tension, or ignore all the danger that made the action of the story compelling in the first place in order to get a laugh. And he still does it better than damn near anyone.
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