Iron Man is about spectacular fire-breathing, sound-breaking, missile-shooting, 800-pound electronic body armor — but it’s the humanity in the story that makes the movie so terrific.
Director Jon Favreau (Zathura) updated the comic book story from its original Vietnam era anti-communism fervor to today’s war on terror, moved it from the Spiderman-similar streets of New York City to the beach and deserts of aerospace southern California, and made the villain a simple human betrayer rather than another super-hero. Mythic overtones play throughout — a man descends into a hell-like cave, emerges alive after wreaking god-like powers from the bowels of the earth and later earns redemption for his sins. All that and spectacular effects, heart-thumping music, sweet romance, clever dialogue, and F-22s catapulting out from Edwards Air Force Base.
Arrogant industrialist genius Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr., Zodiac) is kidnapped by terrorists on a weapons demonstration trip to Afghanistan. Holed up in a mountain hideout, he is forced by the terrorists to build weapons for them. Instead, with the help of a fellow captive — who saves his life by inserting an electronic protection device to keep shrapnel from penetrating his heart — Stark fashions the first Iron Man and escapes.
Chastened to learn the duplicitous nature of the arms industry he’s a part of, Stark determines to right his wrongs. He sets out to make a bigger, shinier fire-engine red Iron Man that can go stratospheric, a feat that greatly impresses his old pal, Air Force pilot Jim Rhodes (Terence Howard, The Brave One). Stark’s greedy second in command, Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges, Sea Biscuit) makes a nastier version and in a noisy but somewhat anticlimactic end, the two Iron Men duel to the death. (Be sure to stay until after the credits are over to see the final scene where Iron Man’s future is revealed.)
When Iron Man is over, three things will stay with you. The first is Tony Stark, whose character arc goes from arrogance to humility to avenger in all of 126 minutes. Influenced by playboy genius billionaire Howard Hughes and his own bedeviled history of addiction and jail time, Robert Downey Jr.’s performance is nothing short of super. Also memorable, in a totally different way, is Stark’s gal Friday, Miss Pepper Potts —Gwyneth Paltrow (Proof) gives her screwball comedy character a sweet 21st century veneer that contrasts perfectly with Stark’s porcupine edges.
Most unforgettable are the scenes where Iron Man is created. It’s fascinating to see life breathed into the “creature” — the cutting and pounding and welding as fire melds the unlikely pieces together, and then the long period of trial and error — both hilarious and exciting — until the prototype is ready to fly. It’s perhaps the most thrilling tribute to good old American ingenuity the movies have given us in ages.