Whilst demonstrating a new weapon in Afghanistan, cocksure billionaire and genius arms-designer Tony Stark (Downey Jr.) is near-fatally wounded when terrorists take him prisoner. Being forced to provide them with the same weaponry, Tony instead creates an armoured suit and escapes back home, where he begins to question his life’s work. Having seen the damage Stark industries has caused first hand, the irresponsible playboy dismantles the company’s weapons division – much to the annoyance of business partner Obadiah Stane (Bridges) – and upgrades the suit in order to protect those in need…
A surprisingly entertaining triumph, Marvel’s first self-financed project takes a B-level hero the masses were unfamiliar with and blasts out a sassy, satisfying megahit. Granted, the appointment of funnyman John Favreau in the director’s chair was somewhat leftfield, yet despite his lack of action credentials (or, one might argue, because of them), the actor-come-filmmaker proves a great choice. Wisely employing a smart, realistic and modern approach (which transplants the story from the original ’60s Vietnam setting to the current situation in Afghanistan), Favreau get the tone just right for the character (cheeky, yet intelligent) while his involvement in every aspect of production ensures all the creative beats are spot-on.
Though comparisons to Batman Begins are perhaps to be expected – given that we’re dealing with a rich playboy who moonlights as a non-super-powered hero – Iron Man isn’t nearly as dark or gritty. Often breezy and consistently funny, both Fav and Robert Downey Jr. (who was closely involved in the creative process) have plenty of fun with the material whilst also treating it seriously, resulting in an ideal balance of comedy and quietly affecting moments (see the gift Pepper leaves for Tony). Unusually for a comic adaptation, the becoming-the-hero section is actually the strongest and most involving part, especially the amusing scenes where Tony is perfecting the suit with the aid of a robotic lab-arm.
Arguably, the story isn’t as sure where to go once we have our finished Iron Man, while the car-crunching smackdown finale offers an underwhelming climax which isn’t able to match the movie’s general strength. That said, the action sequences in general are solid; from the explosive opening which hooks us in to the nicely-executed cave escape (which acts as a neat way to include the original tin-man armour) to the village rescue where our titular avenger makes his debut. Aside from a few minor missteps (such as the cave-created suit being able to achieve flight…) the set pieces refreshingly avoid going over the top and outstaying their welcome, whilst the CGI is seamlessly integrated with the tangible, live-action suits (impeccably designed by the late Stan Winston’s team).
Still, there’s little doubt that the best thing about the movie is Robert Downey Jr.’s expectedly-terrific performance. Inarguably the most pitch-perfect comic movie casting since Chris Reeves tugged on the iconic tights in Superman, the back-from-the-brink actor nails Tony Stark with his snarky attitude, natural charisma and a plethora of great lines (“This is the fun-vee; the hum-drum-vee is back there”). Perhaps most impressive though is how convincingly he sells the potentially hammy transition from cocky womaniser to accountable saviour (after a literal change of heart), essaying an emotional journey which feels noticeably more credible than the usual everyman-to-hero transformations. Interestingly, Stark’s alcoholism (a key storyline for the character in the comics) is absent, but that’s perhaps understandable given RDJ’s previous problems with addiction.
Jeff Bridges is a cut above the normal genre villains we’re used to, although the shaved head and beard mean we pretty much know who the bad guy’s gonna be. Elsewhere, Terence Howard, Gwyneth Paltrow and Shaun Toub round out one of the finest comic movie ensembles thus far, whilst fanboys will love the post-credits appearance from Sam Jackson as Nick Fury.
Though unable to provide a finale as thrilling as everything which has proceeded it, Iron Man is a surprisingly satisfying triumph which sits easily amongst the best comic adaptations to date. It’s smart, funny and realistic, while RDJ is flawless in the lead.