Robert Downey Jr. supposedly spent several weeks getting in shape for the strenuous job of flying around in a superhero costume for his lead role as an armored crusader in Iron Man. Luckily, he's had decades to prepare to play the hero's alter ego, billionaire weapons manufacturer Tony Stark, who spends his time between public appearances (showmanship sells warheads, the movie implies) gulping down mixed drinks and leggy starlets. When Downey sits down on the floor in front of a bunch of reporters to announce that he has had a problem with something but plans to quit and turn over a new leaf, you almost have to pinch yourself to remember he's talking about gazillion-dollar war toys. The sometimes-troubled actor brings some credence to the role of an arrogant, tempestuous young man who becomes aware of his dangerous ignorance, though at times he crosses the line between realism and spoof.
It may help to be in a party mood when watching Iron Man. Action, politics, tongue-in-cheek humor, technology, sex, booze, and rock 'n' roll explode across the screen in a finely choreographed, bedazzling chaos that might leave you wondering exactly what happened. Iron Man's backstory has been transposed from Communist-era Vietnam to present-day Afghanistan, where Stark builds the Iron Man prototype out of scraps to escape his captors. Back in the States, convinced by his recent ordeal of the error in making arms, Stark hones his robotic-suit idea to futuristic perfection in order to search out and destroy his former creations. This new philosophy brings him closer to his pert but wary secretary, Pepper (Gwyneth Paltrow), but puts him at odds with his stern business partner, Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges).
Bridges is another unconventional casting coup for director Jon Favreau, but the opportunity is not as fully realized as with Downey. While the maturing actor looks menacing under his freshly shaved dome and crazy-guy beard, Stane never develops into a truly loathsome nemesis because he isn't given nearly as much attention. Similar lack of development hinders the rest of the characters, as most of the supporting cast is allowed to lend little but star presence to the whiz-bang proceedings. Terrence Howard, as Stark's best friend, a military muckamuck, gets the most screen time but spends it merely scolding Stark or clapping for him, like a walking audience prompt. Paltrow's character, unfortunately, is a standard damsel of action movies past, a worrier who's great at taking notes but always comically squeamish or flailing about on precariously high heels whenever danger is afoot.
As a thrill ride, however, Iron Man is what last year's Transformers wanted to be, a slam-bang action extravaganza about flying, warring metal giants armed with fancy weaponry and barbed one-liners, zipping around to a gung-ho rock-guitar soundtrack. Favreau's movie is not only fast and furious but also irreverent and precocious, even when it's being silly or preposterous, which is often. It's only hard to like when one thinks about its contemporary underpinnings.
Iron Man wants a realistic hero but surrounds him with hokey enemies and friends hamming it up in an old-fashioned oversimplification of current events. People today are too smart to buy the worldview for sale here, whether or not they choose to overlook it at the box office. Future installations (reportedly two sequels are already planned) are supposed to delve into the darker realms of the characters. For now the thickest armor in the franchise -- an impression reinforced by all the gaudy product placement for cars and fast food chains -- is the one against the realities that dwell there.
Directed by: Jon Favreau
Written by: Mark Fergus, Hawk Ostby, Art Marcum, Matt Holloway
Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Terrence Howard, Jeff Bridges, Gwyneth Paltrow