Until the Dark Knight trilogy, I would never have expected any single comic book franchise to have anything close to consistency. Until then, beloved franchises like Spiderman and the X-Men seemed held together like patchwork, with certain parts banging on all nerd-satisfying cylinders and other parts (often the important parts) falling completely into the "campy bullshit" wastebin. Countless other franchises are, let's face it, a complete disaster.
The third Iron Man movie could have gone that way with a changing-of-the-guard handover from one director to another, one who would also carry the weight of the screenplay. But hold that thought for a moment while I extrapolate on a thought I had while leaving the theatre.
Favreau's Iron Man, in my opinion, was the perfect representation of a Marvel Avengers-universe character. Nolan's Batman (which I'll use as a benchmark) somehow seems like an easier undertaking within the more isolated DC-universe: rich guy dons elaborate suit and uses expensive technology to fight evil (sound familiar?), but Nolan's Gotham is set in a very realistic world. The Marvel Avengers-universe (the one in which gamma rays, Norse gods and hyper-galactic aliens exist in) is a much more challenging space in which to write a character.
That's not to devalue Nolan's work on the Dark Knight trilogy at all. That's still some breathtaking work that I genuinely adore. But what I admired about Favreau's Iron Man was that it struck the right balance for conveying the type of comic books I grew up reading - an understanding of the borderline ridiculous nature of the Marvel universe with the need for a compellingly grounded protagonist. It wasn't a re-interpretation of the source material, which I'll argue that Nolan's Batman was. Favreau's Iron Man was funny, but never campy - that's not something that can be said for all Marvel Avengers-universe films - and truly embraced the world it was meant to be set in.
Now, back to the point I diverged from: I didn't expect to like Shane Black's Tony Stark/Iron Man even more.
Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (Black's last directorial project in 2005) is one of my favourite films, and it's no doubt in large part to RDJ's performance - here, Black writes a perfect character for RDJ's charm and quickness, and masterfully harnesses his energy. It seems as though the ability to wield that control hasn't been lost in the last 8 years, and all of the wit and crispness of Black's dialogue – which truly carries every single relationship in this film – is perfect for RDJ and his Tony Stark.
This is a film that truly embraces what the Iron Man character is. I thought Favreau had done that by demonstrating Stark's über-nerd drive to tweak expensive tech and obsess over its intricate engineering, all while realizing that Stark was incomplete without it. I understood Iron Man as a man within a machine, the two perfectly symbiotic. I overlooked the fact that the machine is actually just a byproduct. Black's Iron Man (the suit of armour) is faulty and broken to the point where, for much of the film, Stark can't rely on it. It's here that we see Stark perform significant feats without a suit of armour and even - without spoiling an incredibly rewarding crescendo and climax for you – embrace the disposability of his own creations.
For me, Iron Man 3 was a wonderful new direction for its title character, and Black has done an incredible job of extending the range of its universe without ignoring all that came before.