Screenwriters: Mark Fergus, Hawk Ostby, Art Marcum, Matt Holloway
Starring: Robert Downey Jr, Gwyneth Paltrow, Terrence Howard, Jeff Bridges
Running Time: 125 mins
It may have taken him the best part of 25 years, but Robert Downey Jr. has finally arrived as a bona fide movie star. When Tom Hanks first made a Splash and Tom Cruise was indulging in Risky Business with Rebecca De Mornay, Downey Jr. was starting out in Weird Science.
After a turbulent personal life he now looms large, plastered across the sides of buses and magazine covers in support of Iron Man, the first of this summer's blockbuster extravaganzas. He's an unconventional leading man in a conventional superhero movie. His Tony Stark, a billionaire industrialist and weapons contractor turned superhero, is flamboyant, an eccentric genius - James Bond with a pinch of Howard Hughes. It's perhaps a little strong to say that he carries Iron Man, but it's hard to envision it being as enjoyable without him.
We first meet Stark in Afghanistan (updated from the comic's Vietnam setting). His military convoy is struck by terrorists and he finds himself captured and nursing a gruesome chest wound. Flashing back 36 hours we catch him indulging in his wealth and fame. He shamelessly ploughs head first into the playboy lifestyle, gambling at the Vegas high-rollers table and seducing a knockout blonde. Various supporting cast members are introduced in the process - his faithful but oddly-monikered assistant Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), military advisor Colonel James Rhodes (Terrence Howard) and Stark Industries executive Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges).
Stark jets to Afghanistan to give prospective buyers a demonstration of the new Jericho weapon. After a successful sales pitch ("I prefer the weapon you only need to fire once") the story loops back to Stark's capture by the shady Ten Rings terrorist group. With an electromagnet installed in his chest to keep shrapnel away from his heart, he constructs a clunky, walking battle-tank exoskeleton to break out of captivity.
As far as superhero origin films go, Iron Man is at the higher end of the scale. Better than the first X-Men but not quite as soaring as Spider-Man, its mandate is fairly simple: be loud, be entertaining and don't get too serious. It succeeds on all fronts but, as is often the problem with inaugural superhero outings, there's a lot of exposition to wade through.
Starting and ending with a bang, Iron Man's heels are clipped in the middle by spending too long in getting the eponymous superhero into action. Stark constructs three different armour prototypes (a gift for toy manufacturers) before he gets to the final design. Downey Jr's charisma during the sagging mid-point is crucial in keeping the movie afloat. Take the numerous scenes with him talking to robotic arms as they construct the battle armour. He manages to keep things engaging and funny without threatening to turn proceedings into a high-tech Punch and Judy show.
Downey Jr. and Paltrow possess a crackle together on screen, their snappy back and forth dialogue reminiscent of classic screen pairs like Grant and Hepburn. Paltrow's character is subservient and underused, but her introduction, where she dismisses one of Stark's floosies, paints her as more than a shrinking violet.
Iron Man briefly ponders exploring deeper territory, presenting an interesting shift in Stark's moral compass. He has generated billions as a warmonger but his brush with death in Afghanistan prompts an awakening, reinvigorating him with humanitarian drive and focus. He begins the movie as an empty shell but is given soul by hiding behind another. Director Favreau wisely chooses not to dwell on the Lord of War vibe and pulls theme park action into the foreground.
As a first franchise entry (the film's closing scene, with Stark's out-of-the-blue revelation, leaves intriguing potential for a sequel) and a blockbuster to kick off the summer season, Iron Man proves to be an excellent introduction.