The brilliance of recent superhero movies has been in linking talented, off-beat directors with an equally talented cast -- in other words, treating them as serious movies rather than Atrocious Pun Delivery Systems (a registered trademark of Joel Schumacher Productions).
Casting Robert Downey, Jr. as Iron Man's hard-drinking womanizer who fights crime as a robot sounds like something from a fantasy-land where every movie is perfect and comes with a free puppy.
Movies aren't supposed to have that kind of potential. Like life, they're supposed to be about fumbling opportunities and leaving your customers muttering in a darkened room about how they just wasted nine bucks.
In Iron Man, Downey, Jr. is the chief owner and engineer of Stark Industries, a cutting-edge weapons manufacturer that sells arms across the world. His smarts have kept him rich, but it's his hedonistic charm that's made him a celebrity.
While demonstrating a new missile in Afghanistan, his convoy is attacked. He's taken prisoner by a local warlord and tasked with building them the missile he was set to sell to the U.S. army.
Instead, he starts a different project: an armored suit he can use to blast his way out of captivity.
The escape costs the life of friend and fellow prisoner Shaun Toub. Faced with the harsh reality of just who his arms are being sold to, Downey, Jr. sets a new course for his life: he shuts down his company's weapons division, raising the eyebrows of business partner Jeff Bridges, and begins the secret construction of an upgraded suit he'll use to battle the brutal warlords of the world.
Origin stories can be tough to pull off -- you've got to introduce all kinds of characters, set up a world in need of a hero, and then transform a normal guy into that hero -- but Iron Man lives up to its potential right and left. Like Johnny Depp in The Pirates of the Caribbean, Downey, Jr. could have single-handedly carried things even if he weren't helped by a strong cast (including Bridges, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Terrence Howard), lively direction, and a solid script by Children of Men co-writers Mark Fergus and Hawk Ostby.
Director Jon Favreau might be forever known as the dude who did Swingers, but here, he shows a strong hand for physical comedy and eyeball-blisteringly cool action.
Favreau also finds a way to marry outlandish comic book concepts to the real world in a way that makes Iron Man feel less like a total outlandish fantasy and more like a slightly awesomer universe than our own. The long period in which Downey, Jr. perfects his suit could have been trimmed in favor of more scenes where Iron Man punches chumps through walls.
On the other hand, Downey, Jr., Favreau, and an overeager fire-dousing robot combine to make it very, very funny, and the small details of the construction of Downey, Jr.'s suit make it convincing. Iron Man is going to age well, and a lot of that will be because it spends as much time on the process of becoming a superhero as it does on that superhero handing out complimentary beatdowns.
If there is a chink in Iron Man's mighty armor, it's that it can't quite compete with the pure spectacle of, say, the Spider-Man movies. Does it make sense to say I liked the way Iron Man was more down to earth than its genre brothers, but I wish it had more utterly impossible action setpieces? Is it OK to do that?
Well, too bad, because I just typed it, and I'm too decisive a man to use a crutch like the delete key. What's done is done. It's time to move forward, united as a viewing audience, and remember what's important: that Iron Man makes Downey, Jr. look both larger than life and vulnerably human, and Downey, Jr. makes Iron Man hilariously funny. A post-credits scene promises a sequel. I'll be waiting.