In Iron Man 3, which Black co-wrote with Drew Pearce, Tony Stark (Downey) is still dealing with the aftermath of what happened in New York during The Avengers and seems to have been profoundly changed. He has distanced himself from his girlfriend, Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), and his BFF, James “Rhodey” Rhodes (Don Cheadle), locking himself in his Malibu home and obsessively building numerous Iron Man suits. A flashback (another common Shane Black story telling device) reveals how the old Tony dissed a scientist named Maya Hansen (Rebecca Hall), and a crippled executive named Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce) almost 15-years earlier. Hansen was on the verge of creating a new technology called Extremis, which was intended to heal crippling injuries, while Killian wanted Stark to back his Advanced Idea Mechanics (AIM) program. Tony’s rude behavior would eventually come back to haunt him.
In the present day, a terrorist named the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) has gone on a bombing spree and all eyes are on Iron Man to stop him. But is Stark up to the challenge? When Tony’s right-hand man, Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau), is injured in one of the Mandarin’s attacks, he dares the villain to come after him and wages war on the terrorist. This starts a chain of events that will put Pepper in jeopardy, make Tony question himself, and leave our hero without his Iron Man armor. It will take the help of Rhodey –the former War Machine, now rebranded as the Iron Patriot – and a precocious 10-year-old boy named Harley that Tony meets along the way, for Stark to find his courage, and defeat the Mandarin (who is not exactly who he seems). However, a few enemies from his past, that Tony didn’t even know he had, stand in the way of his goal to avenge the attack on Happy and save the women he loves.
I recently had the absolute pleasure of speaking with writer and director Shane Black about Iron Man 3, along with several other members of the press, at an event promoting the film. The filmmaker discussed the new movie, joining the franchise, making it a PG-13 rated family film, the similar themes that connect all his movies, the separate Chinese theatrical cut, reinventing the Mandarin, Tony Stark’s epic journey, and reuniting with actor Robert Downey Jr.
As I already mentioned, there are many common elements linking Shane Black’s movies and Iron Man 3 is no different. In fact, the film feels more like a Shane Black movie that happens to have Iron Man in it, rather than an Iron Man movie that Shane Black directed … and that’s a good thing! Similar to Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, the film is narrated by Robert Downey Jr., it posses flashbacks, a kidnapping, and a buddy-cop element between Downy and Cheadle that is reminiscent of Black’s earliest work like Lethal Weapon and The Last Boy Scout. Most importantly, the movie takes place at Christmas time!
I began the press conference by asking Black about these common themes in his films and why he decided to set the summer movie during the holiday season. “Well, it just sort of evolved, oddly enough, with Iron Man 3, because I had resisted it. It was Drew (Pearce) who talked me into it, eventually,” Black admitted. “I think it’s a sense of if you’re doing something on an interesting scale that involves an entire universe of characters, one way to unite them is to have them all undergo a common experience. There is something at Christmas that unites everybody, and it just sort of already sets a stage within the stage, that whatever you are, you’re experiencing this world together. I think that also, there’s something just pleasing about it to me. I did Lethal Weapon back in ’87, and we set it at Christmas. Joel (Silver) liked it so much that he put Die Hard at Christmas and there was some fun to that. But look, you don’t have to do every film that way.”
“It’s a time of reckoning for a lot of people, where you take stock as to where you’ve been, how you got to where you are now, and the lonely people are lonelier at Christmas,” he continued. “You tend to notice things more keenly, and more acutely, I think.” The director also mentioned that there was A Christmas Carol theme that he was going for with the film. “Meeting the Ghost of Christmas Past, in the sense that Harley is kind of him, as a young boy, just encountering all these different things that come to him, almost like a fever dream, when he’s at his lowest point. I think that was the idea, as well but I could go on. “
Black also talked about how he got involved with the already successful franchise and his ambitions for the third film. “I can only imagine that having worked previously with Robert contributed to him calling me, and asking me aboard this somewhat more ambitious production," he explained. "I had worked briefly with him and sat with him and Favreau during the inception of the first Iron Man, during those early phases. I was impressed with the project. I was impressed with both of them. So the chance to have a green lit picture where I got to work again with Robert Downey and reunite, and also spend time with Jon Favreau, who gave me endless tips and advice on this thing, was just too attractive to pass.”
"Our ambitions were to make sure that we had, in fact, a movie that felt like a worthy successor to the two previous Favreau films," Black continued. "To Marvel’s credit, they said, 'We’ve done The Avengers, we made a lot of money, so let’s not do that again right now. Let’s do something different.' They allowed for a different, sort of stand-alone film, where we got to be more character centric and look back to the basics of what Tony Stark would do next - what was left to tell of his story. That was very appealing to me. So to make it more of a thriller, to make it more about Tony and less other-worldly, and sort of just ground it more - that was our intention and I hope we succeeded."
In the comics, the character of the Mandarin has been often criticized as a racial caricature and is much differently portrayed in the film. The director was asked to talk about what led him to evolve the character into the way he was finally depicted in the new movie. "I just thought it was an interesting idea to try to mix it up. So that if you’re going to do something that involves a terrorist in the modern world, who’s a villain, who’s just sort of a guy that we’re all afraid of - why not say something about the entire experience of what it would take. For instance, we wanted to create a myth that was all things to all people, and that was from elements of traditional historic warfare, like swords and dragons. We surrounded him with icons that were recognizable, like the beard from Fidel Castro and the field cap from Gadhafi. Why not make an Uber-terrorist and then play with the idea of a corporate world full of think tanks whose assignment, let’s say, was to cobble together the ultimate warfare specialist, and then have that man’s sole unifying characteristic be his undying hatred for America, such that he attracts to him these acolytes and disciples who respond to the myth. We thought that was an interesting idea, regardless of his ethnicity."
In an unprecedented maneuver, Iron Man 3 is one of the first American films to offer a different version of the movie for Chinese theatrical release. Black discussed that decision and overseeing the Chinese cut. "There was an idea for the Chinese version, that it would entail additional footage and I was asked to look at and approve it. I was busy doing the American version while we were simultaneously obtaining footage for the Chinese version," he explained. "So I got a sense of what was going on. I was asked to look at and had a chance later to approve the footage. So now we’ve got these two versions. I’m just thrilled that we had the opportunity to work with what is one of the single fastest emerging box office environments in the world, which is China, where they build theaters so quickly now."
Finally, since most of Black's films have had an R-rating and possessed a lot of F-bombs, the director talked about how we was able to deliver Iron Man 3 as a PG-13 rated Marvel family film. "You know, the F-word, tempting as it always is, especially in film environments, was pretty easy to avoid because I had done a film for kids previously called The Monster Squad," he explained. "That was ages ago. So coming into this, I had to go back and say, 'I remember what it was like when I went to the matinee to stand in line for Star Wars, or The Empire Strikes Back, and those types of films. I got excited all over again about that type of adventure and that I could appeal to a family but keep the film edgy. We didn’t want to pander. We didn’t want to make a kiddie film. But we knew very well that we couldn’t go beyond the boundaries of PG-13."