It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s Robert Downey Jr. in a super-suit!
It’s no slight to the very good CGI effects in Iron Man to observe that this is one of those rare superhero movies where the most noteworthy aspect of the project is the performance of the leading man. Robert Downey Jr. as genius Tony Stark, an arms dealer who sees the light, is hip without being self-conscious, emotional without overdoing it, ferociously smart and in every respect the best thing about this Marvel Comics adaptation.
Iron Man opens with Tony being kidnapped by terrorists after having just happily demonstrated his latest creation, the Jericho missile, to his U.S. military buyers in Afghanistan. Although Tony winds up with shrapnel near his heart, he is saved by a kindly doctor (Shaun Toub), who is also a linguistics expert and fellow prisoner. The leader (Faran Tahir) of the bloody-minded international band of brigands keeps Tony alive so that the scientific whiz can build a new weapon for the terrorists. While being held prisoner, Tony uses the time and resources to construct a flying metal suit that allows him to escape. Changed by his experiences, Tony decides he’d like to use the vast resources of Stark Industries to help people instead of blowing them up, which doesn’t sit well with his business partner, Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges). Tony isn’t too worried about Obadiah’s opinion–he’d rather refine the super-suit than deal with boardroom politics.
Director Jon Favreau approaches Iron Man a bit like a character study. He has the good sense to get inside the helmet with Tony when Iron Man is flying around, so that the viewers get face time with him even when he’s presenting a metal visor to the world. Downey makes the most of this, dazzled, exhilarated, surprised and scared as the occasion warrants, with all the conviction one could ask. Bridges does a bang-up job of channeling John Huston from Chinatown as the villain and Gwyneth Paltrow is just about persuasive as Tony’s super-assistant with no life beyond her work.
The dialogue in the screenplay by writing teams Mark Fergus & Hawk Ostby and Art Marcum & Matt Holloway is often enjoyably, purposefully droll, and the story doesn’t require suspension of logic along with belief, flowing along reasonably within its own strictures. So what are the caveats?
While Iron Man and his eventual toughest adversaries are fun to watch in motion, the effects are reminiscent of those in the recent Transformers, a comparison that in turn invites the thought that there’s both a bit less spectacle and a bit less at stake here. On the other hand, Downey as Stark is good company, so it’s not a terrible trade-off, but by the end, it feels that there are long gaps between the action in what’s billed as an action movie. Apart from very general desires for money and power (which, granted, are motive enough in the real world), the villain has rather hazy motives and a game plan that appears to be formulated somewhat late in the running time. All of this makes Iron Man feel a little uneven.Still, it’s a kick watching Downey get into the whole flying/self-improvement gig. This isn’t necessarily a great superhero movie, but it does boast a great superhero.