Forget about all the fantastic action. Dismiss the disarmingly smart, wry screenplay, and ignore the phenomenal supporting cast. Feel free to overlook the dozen components that make Jon Favreau's Iron Man the most uniquely entertaining superhero movie in a long time ... I've got the one main reason that this flick is worthy of your two hours and ten bucks right here, and that reason is named Robert Downey Jr. Like many movie fans of my generation, I consider Downey to be sort of an old friend. We all wept when Jami Gertz noticed his odd demise in Less Than Zero, we loved watching his evolution in films like True Believer and Chaplin, and we all felt pretty great when the guy finally kicked his well-publicized drug addiction.

Downey is a survivor, no doubt, and he's also a refreshingly engaging actor to watch -- and boy was I thrilled when Marvel announced that this would be the guy to portray Tony Stark. To those who don't know the Stark character from the comic books, let me just make it clear: Downey is the perfect guy to play a smug yet charming, sarcastic yet likable, and perpetually womanizing multi-billionaire mega-genius with a bum ticker. We all know the guy can play sly, snarky, smart characters, so much of Iron Man's early stuff is light lifting for the actor -- but when he starts getting angry? Noble? Heroic? The guy is aces across the board. Bottom Line: Downey has paid his dues, he's been through a lot of hell, and now he's a freakin' superhero who delivers the best popcorn flick performance since Johnny Depp first played pirate. Sometimes Hollywood actually works.

So there's two full paragraphs on the lead actor. As far as Iron Man as a whole ... I'll put it in terms that the superhero movie geeks will understand: It's almost as good as Spider-Man 2, X-Men 2 and Batman Begins. Yeah, it's that kind of quality. Only Iron Man is a pretty unique entry in its own right. It's got some violence, some edge, and some seriously snarky attitude. But then it also has a little something to say about the nature of a society that allows itself to be governed by its own high-tech weaponry -- which means that not only is Iron Man a very fun, very slick, and very consistently clever movie; it also has some sort of a social conscience. The flick says "Hey, if the best X-Men flicks can tackle some real-life issues, then why can't Iron Man make a comment or two on a world that sometimes seems to value money and guns above all else?"

OK, now I'm making Iron Man sound like a preachy affair, which it most certainly is not. As is often the case in "first" flicks (and trust me, there will be more), Iron Man is an origin story. It tells the tale of how a brilliant multi-billionaire industrialist named Tony Stark is abducted by terrorists after showing off his latest (mega-deadly) rocket to the U.S. military, how the guy manages to escape (in rather dazzling fashion), and how he returns home to create his technological masterpiece: A stunningly flashy suit of armor that's got jet-packs on the feet, rockets in the arms, pulse laser thingies in the hands, and the world's smartest computer in the helmet. Frankly you could make nine movies and not get into all the awesome things that Stark's suit can do -- but for now we'll just deal with Part 1.

Tony Stark is an affably sardonic tycoon from the first time we meet him: He's in Afghanistan to demonstrate the overwhelmingly destructive power of his latest creation, the "Jericho" missle. But of course there's a large band of horrible terrorists who attack Stark's convoy, abduct the weapons magnate, and toss him into a cave so he can build a giant weapon for them. Obviously that's not going to happen. With the help of a handy prisoner named Yinsen (an excellent Shaun Toub), Stark begins work on a massive suit of armor, which he then uses to kick some serious ass and escape his way back to the States. (This escape is not only one of the best sequences in the movie, it's one of the best sequences in any superhero movie.)

Upon arriving back in America, Tony proposes (publicly!) that his company should stop making weapons and perhaps focus on something a bit more user-friendly -- but now I'm just rambling about a fairly simple story, and obviously you'll want to discover all this stuff for yourself. Suffice to say that Iron Man capably blends a fairly typical origin story with a satisfyingly kinetic action story -- and boy is it a whole lot of fun. Lots of times when you're dealing with movies like this, the "talky stuff" is the material you struggle through just to get to the "fun stuff," but thanks to Downey (and a stellar supporting cast that includes Terrence Howard, Gwyneth Paltrow, Jeff Bridges, Clark Gregg, and Leslie Bibb) the "in-between" material is actually quite compelling! Like the best superhero movies, Iron Man boasts a screenplay that takes a whole bunch of wild spectacle and (somehow) infuses it with a lot of wit, humanity, warmth, and intelligence.

Truth be told, I could devote extra paragraphs to the flick's excellent musical score, its quick yet unrushed pace, its special effects and action bits ... but really, you already know by now if you're going to see Iron Man. I'll just simply say that I think it's easily one of the most entertaining superhero movies ever constructed, and that it kicks off the 2008 summer movie season in very classy and crowd-pleasing style. Everyone on board deserves a pat on the back for their work on this flick, but it's especially cool for both Downey and Favreau. This inevitable blockbuster represents a big leap forward for both filmmakers, and I'm thrilled to see them cook up something so darn cool together.

Bring on the sequel please.

(Also check out Rocchi's take on the flick!)