For all its fantastic scenes of pure hardware lust—growling European supercars, fanged robotic missile launchers, and of course Tony Stark as a human Swiss Army knife—Iron Man is notable for one very un-superhero-movie quality: a grim sense of sudden mortality.
In the opening scene, Robert Downey Jr.'s playboy arms dealer is being transported by G.I.s across open terrain in Afghanistan, fresh from demonstrating his latest weapon. Cocky, droll, and partially drunk, this particular Stark is just as you imagined Downey would play him: sardonic, intelligent, possibly unhinged. And just as you're getting comfy with his schtick and with the earnest soldiers he's verbally toying with, pop pop pop: Stark's new friends are brutally killed one after the other by unseen gun and mortar fire. You very quickly get the sense that this is not an imagined comic-book setting like Batman's Gotham or Superman's Metropolis. No, this is our Afghanistan, the one where friends and family members are losing their lives in a war.
It's not a particularly ingratiating way to start a superhero movie—Stark doesn't save any lives and tragedy isn't averted. In fact, it's an unexpected reminder that there are actually real life-and-death struggles going on outside our comfy theater right this very moment. It's enough to make you think that director Jon Favreau and the executives at Marvel Studios have no fear: Reminding the American populace that there's a war going on? Who do they think they are—The Daily Show? This small dip into current world events (along with a later scene of villagers being murdered) is nearly enough to put Iron Man into its own sub-genre: the non-escapist popcorn movie.
But in the end, Iron Man stays true to its summer box-office intentions, and it won't disappoint those seeking the traditional battle of pure good vs. pure evil and its predictable outcome.
Stark is kidnapped by a power-hungry Afghan warlord (Faran Tahir) who wants him to build some super-weapons so that he might take over the country (or maybe the world; hard to tell). Stark also has to deal with the unfortunate effects of shrapnel near his heart—though as luck would have it, a kindly prisoner (Shaun Toub) installs an electromagnetic thingamajigger on his chest to pull the shards of metal away. (Though you'd think that'd cause some damage in itself.) Mightily peeved, Stark builds a new weapon all right—though it's actually a metal suit with various armaments, and he uses it to bust out of his cave and kick some warlord-minion ass. Once back in the free world, he declares to the media that he's taking Stark Industries out of the weapons business to focus on more positive pursuits, which puts him at odds with friend/mentor/CEO Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges).
So where do the fun parts come in? Well, there really aren't that many—and to be honest, it's a bit of a relief to watch a summer movie that doesn't try to top itself with every new, outrageous action scene. But throughout, Downey is a pleasure to watch. Sure, he's playing a variation of his usual self—the straight-faced quipster with a drink in hand—but it works here for the first time as a leading man. Downey is able to balance his character's sarcasm with conviction in his new-found values; here's one superhero you can honestly say has a true character arc that you might relate to.
Of course, the Iron Man suit is one of the main attractions here, and the digital effects work by Stan Winston is pretty seamless: The suit looks functional, solid, and cool. It's a shame that some of the supporting characters couldn't have been developed likewise. Terence Howard is steadily squandering his Hustle & Flow heyday with yet another lost-in-the-background performance as essentially Tony Stark's military sidekick. Gwyneth Paltrow as Stark's personal assistant and love interest, Virginia "Pepper" Potts, looks barely awake—and who can blame her with lines like, "What's going on here?" Her character exists mostly to set up Stark's one-liners and to provide some romantic sparks that never take fire.
Fortunately, Jeff Bridges keeps things interesting with his bald head and cold eyes, up until a point—and that point is near the end of the film in which his character goes crazy. (Hey, Pepper says so herself!) Why is it that every supervillain must suddenly decide to go for broke and battle the superhero himself? Wouldn't a smart cookie like Stane stay in the background like he had his entire career as an evil person? Instead, he jumps into his own iron suit and blows his cover for everyone to see, without much motivation at all. You nearly expect him to cap off his abrupt outpouring of rage with a long, "Mwaaa-ha-haaa!"
Nevertheless, Iron Man is the least disappointing superhero movie since Batman Begins, which is high praise in this summer of heroic exploits.