Shane Black has a well-deserved reputation as one of the best screenwriters in the business. As the mind behind such classics as Lethal Weapon, The Monster Squad, and Last Action Hero, his prowess as the go-to guy for cheeky, self-aware actioners is hard to match. But what do we learn about Black when he steps behind the camera and directs his own screenplays? Well, first and foremost, we learn just what a gift this guy has for comedic timing and pulling empathetic performances out of deeply ethically deficient characters, but there’s a bit more to his films than that.
Black’s first directorial effort was 2005’s Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, starring Robert Downey, Jr. as Harry Lockhart, a crook posturing as an actor posturing as a detective as he gets wrapped up in a private investigation that is so very far out of his depth. The only lifeline in the convoluted mystery is Gay Perry (Val Kilmer, doing the best acting of his career), an actual private investigator who calls bullshit on all the preconceived notions that Harry has about the investigation process.
The truly interesting thing about Black’s film, though, is the notion that one can at once subvert all the tropes of a genre while still delivering a brilliant piece of entertainment within that genre. The central mystery is well-developed, but it’s entirely secondary to the comic interactions between Harry and Gay Perry. Harry speaks in dramatic narration, but he stumbles over his words, gets the order of events mixed up, and constantly breaks the fourth wall to provide metacommentary on the absurdities of the story. This self-awareness allows for something that is at once compelling but also completely unpredictable, like how Harry’s finger is severed unceremoniously and is then comedic fodder for the rest of the film. It’s a tactic that would come across as half-heartedly random were it in less confident hands, but Black leans so heavily into his own gonzo antics that it comes out the other side as a brilliant bit of subversion.
That’s why Black is such a bizarre yet fitting choice for what would be his next project, 2013’s Iron Man 3, a film co-written with Drew Pearce as part of one of the most producer-driven mega-franchises ever made, the Marvel Cinematic Universe. In the aftermath of The Avengers, Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) finds himself struggling with the trauma of the near self-sacrifice he made during the battle with the Chitauri. However, in the background of his struggle for stability, Tony must deal with the mysterious rising terrorist threat known as The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) and a corporate rival with something sinister to hide (Guy Pearce).
Again, the mechanics of the plot are entirely secondary to the examination of Tony Stark as a person, which is evidenced by Black’s trademark use of narration and RDJ’s equally trademark spin on Stark’s egotism. The fact that much of the film finds Tony suitless and powerless as a metaphor for his own emotional damage is bold for what is ostensibly a superhero action movie, but the introspection allows for some of the best storytelling this universe has had to offer with some of the best small-scale action the MCU has ever seen. As a neo-noir mystery, Iron Man 3 belongs with the best of them, even giving a comically brilliant twist through the reveal that the “Mandarin” is an oblivious actor being manipulated by a corporate interest bent on raising its own relevance in the world. Hell, even when the film does break out into full superhero action mode, it is ostensibly an Iron Man-War Machine buddy comedy doing a Lethal Weapon riff, demonstrating just how much of a perfect fit Black’s strikingly irreverent yet purposeful sensibilities are for one of Marvel’s most irreverent yet emotionally complex characters.
After taking a break to write and direct the TV movie Edge, Black returned to the big screen with The Nice Guys in 2016, a film co-written by Anthony Bagarozzi and which at first glance seems like another take on the formula of Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. Holland March (Ryan Gosling) is a private investigator searching for a woman named Amelia as a part of a case, though his own bumbling inadequacies have led him to dead ends. Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe) is an enforcer who has been hired to keep people off Amelia’s tail, but longs to enter a more respectable line of work in private investigation due to the gray morality in which he constantly lives. Circumstance forces these two characters together as a complex plot of adult entertainment and corruption in the automotive industry develops around what should have been a simple missing person case.
This is about as spiritual a successor to Kiss Kiss Bang Bang as we’re likely to get, but there are some notable evolutions to Black’s approach to this story. First and foremost, we don’t have a principal protagonist and a secondary, but two co-leads who are forced to learn and grow with one another. They both narrate the story, though noticeably less than Black’s previous singular protagonists, as their contrasting points of view are the driving force of the emotional conflicts that drive these characters. The Nice Guys perhaps stands out the most in Black’s work as rather blatantly laying out that success is not in the pursuit of justice for these lowlifes, particularly because the powerful will always ensure that justice is never served even if Healy and March accomplish their goals. Furthermore, heroism rarely factors into the equation, as luck and circumstance save the day much more than intentional acts of bravery. At the end of the day, The Nice Guys isn’t about nice guys at all, but about how glamorized acts of heroism are really just people fumbling their way through absurd circumstances.
So putting that all together, what is at the core of Shane Black’s ethos? Given his propensity for noir, he certainly loves to highlight the more depraved and amoral sides of humanity, though he does so with a wink and a smile that suggests that we should be in on the big cosmic joke. The plots of his films don’t matter nearly so much as the evolution of the characters embroiled within them, and even that is met with a nihilistic shrug that maybe even their struggles don’t really matter, even when they have their minor epiphanies that stand in place of a character arc. What we do see over the course of Black’s career is a branching out in perspectives, where his leads seem to be multiplying along with the angles at which one can approach the meaninglessness of life’s pursuits.
This lines up with his next project: a revival of The Predator co-written with Fred Dekker which will see a large cast fighting to stay alive against the classic movie monster. Whether or not Black’s return to franchise fare will retain his bleak sensibilities, you can assuredly expect a strong focus on characters, some witty and incredibly funny dialogue, and a plot that will surprise you in many ways, even if to focus on it extensively would be to the film’s disservice. And that’s something to look forward to, as there just isn’t quite anyone else working today who strikes that kind of storytelling balance.