It’s a good thing he can fly because it’d be hell getting caught behind Tony Stark at the airport security checkpoint. Always a treasure with his recent underrated turns in both Zodiac and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, charismatic character actor Robert Downey Jr. transitions effortlessly from contemplative art films to summer blockbusters, sliding into both the gold titanium alloy suit of Tony Stark and his best role in years in director Jon Favreau’s smash hit Iron Man.
Establishing its testosterone fueled tone with ACDC’s “Back in Black” blaring in the background, Iron Man trades in the Vietnam era setting of the comic for contemporary Afghanistan as we first find Stan Lee’s Howard Hughes inspired comic book character Tony Stark (Downey Jr.) rattling around the treacherous terrain in a militarily escorted Humvee. More preoccupied with his trusty scotch and fielding carnal inquiries by serving up his Maxim model scorecard, brilliant weapons manufacturer Stark is quickly jolted to attention by enemy fire as explosives rip through the scene.
Held captive in a terrorist occupied cave, Stark awakens to find himself hooked up to a car battery. In a strange twist of surgical fate that would best be filed under “news of the weird,” Stark learns his life has been saved by a quick thinking mysterious scientist named Yinsen (Shaun Toub) who implants a circular electromagnet in his chest. When faced with the demand that he must build the terrorists a missile in exchange for his release, Stark refuses, suddenly realizing that the situation in which he’s found himself is exactly the one his company helped create by arming the world with weapons of mass destruction. Building what would later erroneously be dubbed his “iron” suit, Stark works with Yinsen to craft an ingenious design to secure his escape. Finally back in his mountaintop mansion overlooking the sea in the states, Stark stuns his business partner Obadiah Stone (Jeff Bridges), military “babysitter” Jim Rhodes (Terrence Howard) and tall-drink-of-water assistant Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) by announcing that he will no longer make weapons.
After an ingenious and fast paced nearly James Bond styled opening that introduces us to Stark both in Afghanistan under duress and intercuts the action with his careless, American playboy lifestyle, director Favreau slows down the pace, dedicating more than a solid, unsuccessful hour of the film to Stark’s experiments with his always evolving alloy suit. Soon Stark tests the waters as a superhero when he realizes the bald, cigar smoking Stone with a preference for playing the piano compositions of Salieri (film geek note: see Amadeus for the subtext) seems to be even more weapons obsessed than the current Bush white house. Although Bridges’ Stone is hardly in the same league as the masterful Joker or conniving Catwoman and doesn’t officially make his appearance as a genuine villain until extremely late into the film, Favreau steps up the action as Iron Man steadily builds towards, as one might say, a “rock ‘em, sock ‘em robots” inspired conclusion.
While Marvel Studio’s first official, self-financed cinematic release (IMDb) doesn’t follow the tried and true comic book superhero paradigm that made Burton’s Batman or Raimi’s Spiderman such an instant success in its ability to capture the attentions of audience members from all walks of life with an emphasis on storytelling, Iron Man is definitely an above average genre offering filled with wit, brains and excellent chemistry between the leads (especially Downey Jr. and Paltrow).
Despite the box office records, perhaps the truest test of Iron Man will be in its ability to use the foundation established in the first film and carry it into the future sequels, which can only improve as Stark’s suit has been tested, and a true villain needs to be introduced. However, in the end, it’s not the eye-popping visuals and headache inducing, overwhelming sound effects but Robert Downey Jr. who makes the film more than just a traditional superhero picture and reminds us again just why he’s one of the true superheroes in his field.