The latest comic book to receive the lavish big-screen treatment, Marvel's "Iron Man" is a serviceable, if not exactly groundbreaking, superhero pic. As is usually the case for a potential franchise-starter of this ilk, the film surrounds the origins of its title alter-ego. The opening forty-five minutes are unpromising and strikingly turgid in the pacing department. Though the remaining hour and fifteen also have a been-there-done-that feel, the movie pops to life as the plot thickens, the action sequences take off, and the characters find their rhythm.
Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), inherited co-head of leading weapons manufacturer Stark Enterprises, is a billionaire playboy whose main extracurricular activities are booze and women. While on an overseas business trip to test out his latest invention, he is kidnapped by Afghan insurgents. Left to his own devices, he secretly builds a powerful, ironclad suit prototype that helps him to escape his captors. Once safely back at his cliffside Malibu mansionand invigorated by a near-death experience that has made him rethink his unsavory professionTony begins work on a higher-tech model of the previous suit he created, complete with technologically accelerated features and flying capabilities. After returning to Afghanistan to save an innocent village under siege, Tony faces his most formidable adversary yet: his own partner Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges), who will do whatever it takes to commandeer control of the company.
With "Iron Man," director Jon Favreau (2005's "Zathura
") has naturally progressed as a savvy filmmaker who can make films that are huge in size and plentiful in special effects, but that never become mindless drivel missing a soul. The characters, particularly lead protagonist Tony Stark and his ever-faithful assistant Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), mostly take precedence over the eye candy, and this allows the story to develop sensibly and organically. Favreau and his many screenwritersMark Fergus & Hawk Ostby (2006's "Children of Men
") and first-timers Art Marcum & Matt Hollowayhave some trouble setting up the plot, and for a while the viewer has trouble connecting emotionally to Tony because of his outward misogyny. Having patience, though, pays off when Tony's lifestyle of wealth and frivolity suddenly transforms to one more meaningful and dedicated to helping the world rather than hindering it through his expertise of weapons.
Action set-pieces, when they finally arrive, elicit the expected fireworks and are sure to please wide audiences settling in for another summer season of blockbusters. Tony's first flight as Iron Man over the nighttime skies of Los Angeles is exhilarating, a second-act stop back in Afghanistan is full of pleasing comeuppances, and a climactic freeway battle is more thrilling and cohesively filmed than a similar scene in 2007's mind-numbing "Transformers
." Visual effects are ace all around and never less than seamless. The most intense scene, however, is a considerably quieter onea battle of wits between Obadiah and Pepper that is masterfully edited and played by the actors.
Robert Downey Jr. (2007's "Zodiac
") isn't the first person most people would think of when they imagine a superhero. Let's face it; he's not the twentieth. What Downey Jr. does have is force and range, two things he puts to good use as he slides into the role of Tony Stark. Downey Jr. so brilliantly makes it his own that now it's difficult to see anyone else portraying the part. Gwyneth Paltrow (2006's "Running with Scissors
") is peppy as could-be love interest Pepper Potts, and what this character lacks in depth the actress makes up for in sheer effervescence. Paltrow hasn't come off this good onscreen in years. As the ill-intentioned Obadiah Stane, Jeff Bridges (2006's "Stick It
") is passable as the story's heavy, though the role is virtually identical to the Willem Dafoe one in 2002's "Spider-Man
." Finally, Terrence Howard (2007's "Awake
") intriguingly essays the part of Jim 'Rhody' Rhodes as a man who very subtly may be harboring deeper feelings for best friend Tony than he lets on. Whether this was intentional or not, that's how it comes off, and gives Howard's underwritten role an extra much-needed layer.
If "Iron Man" is a financial hit (and suspicions are that it will), it is easy to see how a superior sequel could be made. This film is a necessary set-up to the premise and characters, but a set-up all the same. With that complete, both are ready to venture into more intricate and compelling places that "Iron Man" only has time to scratch the surface of. Not quite memorable enough to live up to the top superhero films, such as the aforementioned "Spider-Man
," but proficient enough to be satisfying, "Iron Man" suggests with a clever ending that better things are yet to come.