Iron Man isn't the best known of the Marvel hero roster. Although he's one of the earliest creations of comics supremos Stan Lee and Jack Kirby (the tin-shelled dude first hit the shelves in 1963) he's certainly not on the A-list with Spider-Man, the X-Men, Hulk or the Fantastic Four. He's more of a B-lister, along with the likes of Thor, the Sub-Mariner, Captain America, DareDevil or Ghost Rider. But after this smashing cinema debut, you can expect to see Iron Man rise up the ranks.
Like all Marvel superheroes, Iron Man is a complex, flawed individual. Well, not so much Iron Man himself, but the man behind the metal mask, Tony Stark. Perfectly played here by Robert Downey Jr, Stark is a billionaire industrialist and genius inventor, the head of Stark Industries which supplies weapons to the US Government. Stark is handsome, charismatic, very self-assured and extremely popular with women. He leads a hedonistic lifestyle, seemingly without a care in the world (except maybe which glamorous covergirl to bed next). While in Afghanistan demonstrating his latest missile system to the US military, Stark is injured (by one of his own weapons, in an inevitable coincidence), captured by a Taliban-like group and ordered to make them some lovely weapons too. Instead, he builds himself a powerful iron suit and makes his escape. Back in the US, Stark has had a change of heart (literally as well as figuratively — his heart was damaged in Afghanistan) and decides that his company will no longer deal in death and destruction. He also sets to work perfecting the super suit he used to escape. Meanwhile, his right-hand man Obadiah Stane (Bridges) is not happy with the business's change of direction ...
Iron Man is, like the first Spider-Man and X-Men films before it, an origin story. It has a difficult job, in trying to keep long-time fans of the comic book happy while also trying to appeal to as wide a movie-going audience as possible. And for the most part, it succeeds. Director Jon Favreau doesn't have much of a track record for this style of film, but he really has managed to pull it off. Of course, a large part of that is down to the casting of Downey in the lead role — has there ever been an example of more perfect casting? Not only does he bring along his impressive acting talents, but his ... shall we say, "interesting" ... personal life also informs the part. Simply oozing charisma, Downey brings a huge amount of believability to Tony Stark: the quick-quipping, womanising, hard-drinking man we meet at the start of the film is completely grounded in reality. But the change in him after his capture and escape — that, too, is utterly believable in the iron fist of this acting powerhouse. He's all swagger and wisecracks, but when his conscience gets to him, he rises to the task at hand. In the hands of a lesser actor, the dual role of Tony Stark/Iron Man would be hamfisted and corny, but Downey brings to mind the joy we felt watching Christopher Reeve on screen in the first Superman film — Downey simply gets it. He understands that yes, it's a comic book character, but he makes him just as human as you or I. And he's ably supported by another acting powerhouse in Bridges, who puts aside his goofy Dude persona to play smarmy evil to perfection. Howard, too, is terrific in the small but vital (especially in the next film!) role of military pilot and Stark pal Jim Rhodes. Even Favreau himself pops up as Stark's driver and bodyguard "Happy" Hogan. Sadly underused, though, is Paltrow as Stark's assistant "Pepper" Potts. There's a wonderful flirtation between the two, with a definite unspoken history, but their scenes together are all too brief.
Although there are a few minor faults — the film is a little flabby round the middle, and some of the developments are glossed over too quickly — this is a stunning debut for Iron Man. As an origin film, it works well — much more Spider-Man cool than Fantastic Four blah. There's enough in here to keep the hardcore fans of the comic happy (and both Favreau and Downey count themselves among that number) while being accessible enough to introduce a whole new audience to Shellhead. This is Favreau's first attempt at an action film, and he's come up trumps. All that's left to say is: roll on Iron Man 2.