Hollywood's bars are, no doubt, full of them: writers and actors and directors who had their time in the spotlight, only to be pushed aside when someone better, sexier, or more successful showed up. Los Angeles is a fickle town, and, the cliché goes, you're only as good as your last picture. Which is why it's always surprising to see someone come back, let alone come back successfully: It's not that they can't, it's that they're rarely given the chance.
Which brings us to Shane Black, who, for a stretch, had it better than most: Hollywood's go-to guy for action comedies, he wrote Lethal Weapon, The Last Boy Scout, and The Long Kiss Goodnight. But the wheels started to shake when he was one of the four writers of 1993's Schwarzenegger debacle Last Action Hero, and then he disappeared—forgotten or written off—until 2005. That's when Black wrote and directed Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, teaming up Robert Downey Jr. and Val Kilmer for a hyper, whip-smart riff on pulp detective novels. More than one review called the film clever and violent, while also fretting that it bore the skeevy, frantic feel, as Portland Mercury explained, of "watching a very funny meth addict tweak out."
Black hadn't made a movie since Kiss Kiss Bang Bang until Marvel's corporate overlords, Disney, gave the surprising go-ahead for him to direct and co-write Iron Man 3. Maybe after The Avengers, Marvel wanted to set a new tone for their superheroes, or maybe they figured there wasn't much to lose after the shrug-inducing Iron Man 2. Whatever their thinking, good on 'em: Iron Man 3 blows the first two Iron Man movies out of the water, standing up there with Thor and The Avengers as one of Marvel's best and most enjoyable blockbusters. Sharp and twisty and hilarious, it's a great Shane Black movie that also happens to be a great superhero movie.
As Iron Man 3 begins, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr., predictably excellent) is weary with insomnia and plagued by anxiety attacks. Years of quipping and avenging have taken their toll—and that's before a brutal terrorist calling himself the Mandarin (a seriously phenomenal Ben Kingsley) starts setting off bombs and hijacking TV signals, cannily and relentlessly terrifying every American. When Tony's pal Happy (Jon Favreau) is caught in one of the Mandarin's attacks, Tony vows revenge—sleepless nights and panic attacks be damned.
Tonally, Iron Man 3 takes a few riffs from Christopher Nolan's happiness-loathing bat-movies, which means it's the darkest Iron Man to date. But! Thanks to Black's blisteringly great dialogue—not to mention his willingness to throw one or two hard left turns into Iron Man 3's plot, imbuing it with significantly more subversive humor than my dumb synopsis suggests—it's also the Iron Man that's both the funniest and the most fun. Crackling and cackling with Black's smartass energy and go-for-broke enthusiasm, Iron Man 3 feels like Marvel threw a bunch of comic books and money at Black and Downey Jr., stepped back, and told them to have a blast. And then they did.