Downey wears the 90-pound suit of booster-rocket armor well, as he dramatizes the awkward transition of inventor Tony Stark from self-obsessed playboy to scientist on a mission. More importantly, the 43-year-old actor makes the man inside the heavy-metal jacket compelling in his own right.
Unlike blockbuster characters X-Men, Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four, Iron Man never dominated Marvel Comics' pantheon of heroes. In locking down the first weekend in May for the film's launch, Paramount Pictures is betting big that Downey's charm and a steady stream of online teasers will galvanize a broad audience and match the box-office numbers of last summer's Middle East-themed Transformers. The plan could spawn a lucrative new superhero franchise: Some box-office experts predict Iron Man will be one of the top five hits of the season.
About those adrenaline-charged Iron Man trailers, which made the rounds online in the run-up to the film's Friday release: Have all the movie's cool bits been shown already?
Nope. You'll have to pay to get an eyeful of Iron Man's foe, the massive Iron Monger. Also missing from trailer action is a wishful-thinking revenge fantasy that plays out on the big screen: Iron Man shoots down yammering, hostage-holding terrorists with repulsor beams to save the lives of innocent women and children.
Iron Man's big set pieces lack Michael Bay's epic Transformers scope but feel more real than Spider-Man's movie escapades. And Iron Man has plenty going on between the special effects. First and foremost, Iron Man displays a sense of humor. Compared to the brooding Batman of recent vintage, Superman's plain-vanilla virtue and Peter Parker's borderline-cornball sincerity, Downey's wise-cracking superhero keeps the onscreen action snappy.
Director Jon Favreau (Elf, Swingers) plays to Downey's hyperkinetic, improvisational strengths from the outset, kicking off this origins story with a pre-trauma portrait of brilliant inventor Stark, a Scotch-swigging, fast-talking womanizer who's made a fortune selling weapons. Hours after sleeping with a reporter (Leslie Bibb) in his Malibu smart house, Stark checks in with steadfast executive assistant Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) and jets to Afghanistan in a private plane with Air Force liaison James "Rhodey" Rhodes (Terrence Howard). There, Stark demonstrates his latest exercise in mass destruction, the Jericho Missile, for U.S. military brass.
A roadside bomb changes everything. Glib no more, Stark wakes up in a cave with an electro-magneto disc carved into his chest that prevents shrapnel from piercing his heart. Eventually, he escapes warlord Raza (Faran Tahir) after forging the first crude Iron Man suit. The politics here are vague, and though Tahir glowers menacingly, the southwest Asian captors are a weak link in the movie. Stripped of the memorable one-liners, seductive charm or lopsided logic that a juicy villain brings to the table, Iron Man's enemies are a predictable, two-dimensional lot.
Back in California, the conscience-stricken Stark announces that his company is quitting the munitions business, which is bad news for stockholders and Tony's longtime partner, Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges).
Toiling with robots in his 3-D modeling workshop to build a bigger, better Iron Man suit, gearhead Stark submerges himself in don't-bother-me-I'm-saving-the-world mode, which is good for some broad laughs when his out-of-control beta suit flings him against the wall.
After Iron Man rockets himself overseas in an upgraded, repulsor-powered suit to get payback from his former tormentors, corporate skulduggery leads to an earth-shuddering smackdown in the night skies over Los Angeles between Iron Man and his new nemesis, the bloated Iron Monger.
The fight and flight scenes blend live-action stunt work with CGI effects from Industrial Light and Magic with reasonably convincing results, but it's the actors who bring out the soul in Iron Man. Oscar-winner Paltrow endears as Pepper, the shy-yet-feisty sidekick who's not so secretly in love with her boss. Playing the wily Obadiah -- in shaved head and beard -- Bridges radiates smarmy gravitas and challenges Stark's newfound idealism at every turn.
But Downey's the driving force here. Sincere yet never sappy, he retains a rascal's charm to the end, and Iron Man finds a heart without losing his brainy edge.
Wired: Gadgets, humor, heart and a whip-smart leading man channel the high-tech flights of fancy into a genuinely affecting character study.
Tired: Music by Ramin Djawadi relies on crunchy heavy-metal guitars and other familiar tricks of the trade to drive the action. Evil terrorist? Cue the cellos.
Critiques aren't giving it the BEST reviews as it so deserves. If I get my hands on a copy on the internet of Iron Man I'll be sure to give it a review that does it justice in my eyes.