As far as Marvel characters go, I can’t say I ever really cottoned to Iron Man in my comic-reading youth. Sure, I was aware of his backstory and his rogue’s gallery and all that, just by dint of sheer osmosis. But, other than when he was hanging around the Avengers or engaged in some huge crossover like Secret Wars, I don’t think I ever picked up an issue. (Besides, with his industrial-techy side and all the paramilitary hangers-on, Iron Man seemed a hero designed for the GI Joe/Transformers kids, which was never really my scene. Inasmuch as I read Marvel, I usually preferred the angst-ridden, verbose types (Spidey, the X-Men, etc.))
All of this is a long way of saying that, given I have no real reservoir of nostalgia for its titular hero, Jon Favreau’s crisp, surprisingly fun Iron Man seems that much more of an achievement. (Yes, I’d say the movie of the trailer holds up.) Sure, it suffers from having to tell yet another variation of the increasingly worn origin story, and thus slips below the top tier of recent comics films freed from that obligation (X2, Spiderman 2, The Incredibles.) And it’s possible that Iron Man‘s sheer, unapologetic summer-blockbusterness may rankle a few viewers out there. (Note the not-very-subtle Burger King and Audi product placements.) But, as far as origin stories go, I’d say Iron Man can hold its helmet proudly alongside Batman Begins and the Donner Superman, thanks mainly to its superb cast (and inspired casting). And, as the kickoff to what’s by all accounts an absurdly-stocked fanboy summer, Iron Man sets an auspiciously high bar for the many features to come.
In this updated incarnation, Iron Man begins as a sequel of sorts to Charlie Wilson’s War: A troop convoy containing genius weapons manufacturer Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.), nursing a scotch, is upended and undone on a dusty road in Afghanistan, and the ne’er-do-wells responsible are somehow armed with Stark Industries’ finest. Cut to the title card, then to 36 hours earlier, when we meet Stark in his natural locale, Vegas. The son of a famous “ironmonger” and member of the Manhattan Project, Tony is basically a cross between Bill Gates and Howard Hughes, an acerbic, alcoholic, womanizing billionaire who always knows he’s both the smartest and the richest guy in the room.
But after being near-fatally wounded by shrapnel of his own making and captured by an Afghan warlord in the aforementioned raid (Stark was in-country, with his Air Force pal Rhodey (Terrence Howard), to pitch his newest lethal invention to the Brass), the playboy industrialist undergoes a not-unanticipated moral awakening, thanks in part to the saintly doctor (Shaun Toub) who saves his life with an electromagnet and a car battery. After building a suit of armor to break out of his Tora Bora captivity, Stark eventually returns stateside a changed man. He’s got an arc reactor (don’t ask) for a heart, he’s getting out of the Merchant of Death trade for good, and he’s thinking about taking that whole suit-of-iron idea to the next level. This (literal) change of heart, however, doesn’t sit altogether well with Stark Industries’ chairman-in-regency, Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges), who — despite his long relationship with Stark and his father — may have his own ideas on how to proceed. Y’see, the weapons trade really tied the company together, so Stark’s new digression will not stand, man.
The Dude’s turn toward unctuous corporate villainy is one of the most potent secret weapons in Iron Man‘s arsenal. (Speaking of which, look for the explicit Lebowski name-drop.) A bald, bearded, leering, and obviously untrustworthy achiever, Bridges is great fun here as the eventual Big Bad — he takes the film up a notch in every scene he’s in. (There’s long been rumors of a Tron 2.0 script involving Bridges’ character having gone all Col. Kurtz somewhere up the datastream. I was thinking of that quite a bit during Iron Man.)
But Bridges is not alone — He’s matched here every step of the way by Robert Downey, Jr., who’s both a brilliantly unconventional superhero and a note-perfect Tony Stark (indeed, so much so that my brother tells me the recent Ultimate reboot has basically ret-conned Stark into Downey, Jr.) It’s really hard to imagine any other actor in the role, or anyone else working as well. In fact, as with Batman Begins (give or take Katie Holmes), Iron Man is basically overstocked with talent at every position, from Gwyneth Paltrow as Pepper Potts (Stark’s Moneypenny) to director Favreau as Happy Hogan (Stark’s Foggy Nelson) to Clark Gregg (In Good Company) as an agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. (although not that one — he comes later.) I mean, when you’ve got Paul Bettany playing the voice of the computer (also a nod to Jarvis, Stark’s Alfred), you know you’re working with an embarrassment of riches.
If Iron Man has a problem, it’s that, despite the prodigious talent on display, the movie is still somewhat hampered by the now-rote conventions of the origin-movie genre. I mean, I’m definitely of the fanboy temperament, but even I grew ever-so-slightly bored as Iron Man moved us through the usual paces (the awakening moment, the learning to use the new powers, the big reveal of the new suit, the final mano a mano, etc.)
Still, Favreau and Downey leaven these moments as best they can, and — as you might’ve guessed from Lebowski, above — there’re plenty of knowing winks throughout to keep the base happy. (Like I said, I’m pretty unfamiliar with Iron Man canon, but even I could figure out the nods to War Machine and the Mandarin.) In short, if you allow for the constraints of the genre, Iron Man is basically everything you’d want in a summer-y superhero blockbuster. And if they bring Downey et al back for the sequel, I’d definitely look forward to seeing Iron Man live again.