One of the many nice moments in Iron Man comes as techno-titan Tony Stark (played by Robert Downey, Jr.) is consulting with his artificial intelligence majordomo, Jarvis, about the fabrication of the newest version of the high-tech power armor Stark intends to use to stop evil and protect the innocent. Looking at a holographic simulation of the proposed design of the glittering, golden armor -- which enables its wearer to fly, lift cars, shoot energy beams, withstand bullets and includes many other clever bits of engineering -- Stark makes a brief request regarding the color scheme: "Why don't you throw a little hot rod red in there?" Stark seems to be saying Sure, it's fancy and expensive and technologically majestic and wonderful, but a little style can still go a long way. ...
And as it is with the Iron Man armor, so it is with the Iron Man movie. Marvel Comics' first foray into self-financed film making has movie stars and impressive effects and a script where every plot point you would expect meshes with its neighbors as precisely as the plates and pieces of Stark's armor do, but it's the touches of style that make it truly sizzle. Director Jon Favreau does not seem like a choice you would expect as the director of a comic-book movie; Robert Downey Jr. does not seem like a choice you would expect as the star of a comic-book film. Between the two of them, they give us something different from the comic-book movies we've come to expect; a little swagger, a little strut, a touch of self-mocking humor that never undercuts the pleasures of the thing being mocked. It's as if someone snuck a hefty slug of bourbon into your cherry cola; all of the sugar and flavor and fizz you expect from a well-made comic-book movie are there, but there's something a little more grown-up going on behind them.
Downey plays Tony Stark, a brilliant, boyish genius whose position at the head of the munitions company his father founded has made him wealthy, celebrated and insulated; he glides from black-tie dinners to field demonstrations with a bored and blasé air, one fist clutched around a drink as the other flicks the switch on his latest creation of devastation. But after a product demonstration in Afghanistan, Stark is attacked and severely wounded -- with his own weapons, no less -- and captured. He's been seized by a terrorist group called the Ten Rings, who command him to build them a version of the multi-headed missile he just unveiled. Aided by Dr. Yinsen (Shaun Toub), the medical man who saved his life, Stark starts working ... on an escape plan. Or, more accurately, an escape weapon; a bulky, clumsy but powerful exoskeleton that Stark can use to fight his way out of captivity.
And we're following the familiar plotline of the superhero origin film, which is by now as familiar to us as the stations and stops on a transit route we've taken many times before: "Now departing 'normal life'; next stop, 'inciting incident'; after 'first use of new abilities,' please change cars at 'moral realization' for 'climactic battle with nemesis' ..." Many superhero films groan and shudder through those stops, but Iron Man moves through them quickly and well; the drivers are competent, the upholstery plush, and the scenery attractive.
Back in America, Tony re-connects with his company's second-in-command, Obidiah Stane (Jeff Bridges, with the hearty back-slapping back-stabbing charm of a bad Silicon Valley CEO), questioning how his weapons wound up in the hands of terrorists; Tony asks his liaison from the military, Jim Rhodes (Terrence Howard) and assistant Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) to help him investigate as well. But, after seeing what his weapons can do to others (and to him) in the wrong hands, Tony wants to do something a little more direct and refines the super-suit he used to escape so that he might effect change himself. It's a nice inversion of the Spider-Man mantra: for Tony Stark, with great responsibility comes great power. And a really neat outfit.
And that's part of the clever charm of Iron Man; unlike the tortured Batman or lonely Superman, a lot of the time, Tony looks like he's having a ball. After an early test run, Stark's quiet note of celebration -- "Yeah. I can fly." -- is exactly what you would expect a normal guy to say after a quick break from gravity. The charm and flair Downey brings to the film is to be expected; the heroic assurance and moral authority is not. And yet, the once-troubled Downey, a man of position and privilege who had to publicly atone for his mistakes, is not that different from Tony Stark, a man of position and privilege who is atoning for his mistakes in a very public way.
Many will knock Iron Man for being a competent, fun but fairly familiar superhero film; considering how many superhero films are neither competent nor fun, that airy dismissal actually seems like high praise. Cineastes with four-star palates will sniff and sneer at the very idea of a well-made summertime snack like Iron Man -- Must Hollywood give us these dreary power fantasies? What a love-letter to the military-industrial complex! -- but those of us who live in the real world accept that as long as action-franchise films are profitable, we're going to have them, and if we're going to have them, then we can only hope that they're this well made.
Compared to the clanging, inhuman, idiotic Transformers or the dimwit drudgery of Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer, Iron Man is a true pleasure: It's smart, assured, funny, exciting, cast with actors who know that they're playing fairly well-established archetypes and decide to play around with them, not struggling with them like some unwieldy burden to be dragged to the bank. We get a set-up for a sequel in Iron Man, but that prospect's actually something you feel excited about; while Iron Man isn't perfect, it's so fun and good-natured and, yes, stylish that you want more. What makes Iron Man so enjoyable is that the movie's much like the high-tech hero it revolves around: Glossy and gleaming and brightly-colored, but still human inside.