‘Iron Man 3’: Shane Black returns Tony Stark to ‘real world’ post-‘Avengers’

May 01, 2013 | 3:00 p.m.
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Ben Kingsley portrays supervillain the Mandarin in "Iron Man 3," directed by Shane Black. (Marvel Studios)

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Gwyneth Paltrow, left, and Robert Downey Jr. reprise their roles as Pepper Potts and Tony Stark in "Iron Man 3." (Marvel Studios)

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Robert Downey Jr. reprises his role as Tony Stark in a scene from "Iron Man 3." (Marvel Studios)

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Robert Downey Jr. reprises his role as Tony Stark in a scene from "Iron Man 3." (Marvel Studios)

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Iron Man and Pepper Potts share a moment in "Iron Man 3." (Zade Rosenthal / Marvel Studios)

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The Mandarin draws power from 10 rings he found among the ruins of an alien vessel. (Robert De La Torre / Marvel Comics)

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The Mandarin made his comics debut in 1964's "Tales of Suspense" No. 50, by Stan Lee and Don Heck. (Marvel Comics)

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With his 10 powerful rings and aspirations of world domination, the Mandarin became Iron Man's arch nemesis. Above, the cover for "Tales of Suspense" No. 55. (Marvel Comics)

By mid-April, “Iron Man 3” was beginning to look like the surest of sure things. Three weeks before the film was to arrive in U.S. theaters, early reviews and box-office tracking suggested that the latest installment in the adventures of Robert Downey Jr.’s charming superhero Tony Stark might rival or even surpass the $2-billion success of last summer’s hit “The Avengers.”

But on a Monday afternoon just days before “Iron Man 3” was set to premiere in London, the film’s director and co-writer, Shane Black, wasn’t taking anything for granted.

“If the movie’s a huge hit, I’ll pump my fist in anticipation of the fact that I’m still viable,” Black said, sitting on a rolling chair in a dusty, sparsely furnished office at the corner of Hollywood and Vine. “The fact that I have a chance to come in and do a job that other people would sell their left arm for is not something that escapes me.”

Coming from another director, the modesty might ring false. But Black, 51, understands the fickle nature of movie fame as well as anyone.

The Pittsburgh native sold his first script for $250,000 at the age of 23. “Lethal Weapon” announced him as a singular talent whose gift for pairing kinetic repartee with eye-popping spectacle reinvented the modern action film.

For the next decade, Black remained one of the mostly highly paid, sought-after writers in Hollywood, commanding top dollar for screenplays including 1991’s “The Last Boy Scout” and 1993’s “Last Action Hero.” His streak ended when 1996’s “The Long Kiss Goodnight” bottomed out at the box office.

By then, Quentin Tarantino and Kevin Williamson arrived with their own brand of chatty, violent, postmodern genre movies, and Black faded from view.

Almost a decade later, he appeared poised for a comeback with the L.A.-set noir caper “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang,” his 2005 directorial debut. The film paired Downey and Val Kilmer as a petty thief/actor and a private eye who find themselves embroiled in a dangerous mystery.

Robert Downey Jr., left, and director Shane Black on the set of "Iron Man 3." (Zade Rosenthal / Marvel Entertainment)

Robert Downey Jr., left, and director Shane Black on the set of “Iron Man 3.” (Zade Rosenthal / Marvel Entertainment)

“Kiss Kiss Bang Bang,” which Black also wrote, premiered at the Cannes Film Festival and initially seemed like the ticket back to Hollywood’s A-list for the filmmaker and his star Downey after years in the career doldrums. But it wasn’t — the movie grossed just more than $4 million.

Downey immediately moved on to roles in smaller indie projects; Black tried to make other films, without much luck.

“I spent a good deal of time trying to develop other projects,” Black said. “I’m very slow. I slogged about a bit and tried to do this thing called ‘The Cold Warrior’ with Mel Gibson that fell through. I dealt with getting my own life back on track, which at the time seemed more important than devoting all my energies to directing.”

In other words, he got sober: “My drinking license expired,” he said.

Black is a hulking teddy bear of a man with a clear speaking voice, polite but direct, who almost never ends a sentence with a preposition. He and Downey became close during the making of “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.” “You really get to know someone when you’re shooting nights for a couple of months,” Downey said.

So when Jon Favreau, director of 2008’s “Iron Man” and 2010’s “Iron Man 2,” chose not to return to the franchise in that capacity, Black found his name on the shortlist of replacements. (Favreau does reprise his role as Tony Stark’s overzealous bodyguard Happy Hogan.)

PHOTOS: Shane Black: From ‘Lethal Weapon’ to ‘Iron Man 3’

“He’s a very eccentric guy, at the same time, he’s a very practical guy and he’s an extremely knowledgeable guy about all kinds of stuff,” Downey said of Black. “He’s eccentric kind of like everybody that I like, he doesn’t think about things in a linear way.”

Marvel has made a habit of placing directors not well versed in big-budget movies at the helm of their films — with great success. Case in point: Joss Whedon. Prior to “Avengers,” Whedon hadn’t directed a feature since 2005’s “Serenity,” an outerspace adventure adapted from his short-lived TV series “Firefly.” “Serenity” earned only $25 million during its domestic theatrical release.

Black’s history with “Iron Man,” not to mention his facility with action movies and rapport with Downey, made him a solid candidate: Black had served as an uncredited consultant on the first two movies, providing Downey and Favreau with ideas for dialogue and character moments.

“With Shane, we knew that we’d get a different tone, a unique tone of action, of emotion, for the journey that we and Robert wanted to take Tony on over the course of this movie,” said Marvel Studios president and “Iron Man 3” producer Kevin Feige. “I think Robert was looking to Shane to provide not necessarily direction on what Tony Stark would do or say, but to mix it up, to bring new elements out of him.”

Black wanted to transport Tony Stark back to the “real world” after his cosmic adventures in “The Avengers” introduced him to the idea of aliens, Norse gods and interplanetary dimensions. The script credited to Black and Drew Pearce finds Tony struggling with insomnia and panic attacks when he becomes targeted by a terrorist known as the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley), a famous foe from the “Iron Man” comics.

After the Mandarin lays waste to his Malibu compound, Tony winds up stranded in rural Tennessee, forced to rely on his ingenuity to stop the Mandarin’s efforts to bring down the U.S. government and to deal with an additional threat posed by a biological agent known as Extremis.

Shane Black photographed in 2005 in the backyard of his  Hancock Park home. (Mel Melcon/Los Angeles Times)

Shane Black photographed in 2005 in the backyard of his Hancock Park home. (Mel Melcon/Los Angeles Times)

“He’s forced to just be Tony Stark, in a sense, not just a man like he was in the first movie when he was on his own but a man who doesn’t even have access to his monies, his fame,” Black said. “He’s forced to basically strike out on his own and cobble a defense against the menace that he would need every single bit of armor to defend himself.”

To prepare for the shoot, which took place largely in North Carolina and Florida last year, Black studied the films of Ridley Scott and David Fincher in the attic of his Hancock Park home, dissecting their visual styles. But Black described the actual experience of being on the “Iron Man” set and directing as “the usual terror and boredom.”

“It was unusual in the sense that it was a big budget and there’s a lot of oversight, but directing a movie on any level, I think, when you’re beyond the planning stage, when you’re on the set, it’s always the same,” he said. “There’s the video village, [the crew asking for] another 10 minutes to trim the lights, there’s that awful chili that seems to materialize in a cup in your hand at 4 in the morning as you watch your belly extend.”

The $200-million production was interrupted when Downey injured himself during a wire jump for a stunt scene in North Carolina, halting filming for nearly two months while the star recovered. The lost weeks resulted in an abbreviated post-production schedule that had Black and other key crew members sprinting to complete the film in time for its London unveiling.

“Iron Man 3” collected nearly $200 million when it opened in some 42 countries around the globe last weekend, and it appears on track to nearly match that figure when receipts from its North American debut are tallied this weekend. (Adding to the haul will be ticket sales from China, where a version of the film with additional scenes created specifically for the Chinese market is opening this week.)

What that means for the director and his future with the franchise, though, remains unclear.

“’Iron Man 4,’ there may be talk of it, but Marvel has five movies already planned, so by the time they get around to ‘Iron Man 4,’ it’s going to be 2015. If then,” Black said cautiously. “I have to keep in mind that there’s going to be a considerable amount of time before I’m even presented with that opportunity, should it arise.

“I would be happy to do a smaller picture,” he added. “I’m more interested in things that obsess me, things that catch my attention and ignite any kind of passion I have. Working is when I’m most comfortable. I have to be working on something I love.”

– Gina McIntyre | @LATHeroComplex


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7 Responses to ‘Iron Man 3’: Shane Black returns Tony Stark to ‘real world’ post-‘Avengers’

  1. Jay says:

    At this point, in the franchise…..these movies can direct themselves.

  2. Orangeyouglad says:

    So glad Shane Black is 'back' — I remember reading his 'Lethal Weapon' script years ago and being blown away by his quirky humor and dead-on rhythm. (Plus, the man can really blow things up.) I'm not the demographic for Iron Man (of any number), but I'll go see it anyway.

    And no, Jay, movies don't direct themselves, though many look like they have.

  3. Free says:

    I would agree with the above comment but that movies don't direct themselves. Good show, Shane. You deserve all the good things coming your way.

  4. Dissapointed_FAN says:

    Shane ruined the Iron Man franchise. I cant believe I paid money to see this movie. You sir have no business doing comic book adaptations. The plot was crap and everywhere I look this movie is getting horrible reviews. I have never commented on movies that I have seen but after seeing this movie I was so upset that I had to set out and find avenues by which to convey my disgust. You hire Sir Ben Kingsley to play one of Marvels most infamous and powerful villains and you just ruined it…you had a great actor at your disposal willing to play a great super villain and you give us this? I just about walked out in the theater if it wasnt for the premium I paid to see this junk in 3D at an IMAX screen. Iron Man needs a reboot from this, just like they did with Spiderman. There were so many things wrong with the plot I dont even have the time to sit here and get more descriptive. YUCK

  5. geeves says:

    It's been a long time since you've made a relevant movie and the best you can come up with is regurgitating a bunch of scenes from your Lethal Weapon sequels? I hope Marvel realizes the mistake they made hiring you.

  6. glamon says:

    So disappointed with Iron Man 3. Iron Man was my absolute favorite as a kid and I love RDJ's Tony Stark but this script was a mess. The Mandarin? A mess. Quick-change interchangeable and disposable (?!) armor? A mess. Overall a "Swing and a miss"….but I love the character and look forward to his next film…just need another creative team at the helm.

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