Debuting in March 1963 in the pages of Marvel Comics' Tales of Suspense No. 39, Iron Man has been a perennial second-tier character for that company over the past four decades – popular enough to never really be threatened with cancellation due to low sales, but never quite capable of breaking into broader pop culture to rub shoulders with the likes of Superman, Batman, Spider-Man, The X-Men and The Incredible Hulk (the last three of which were all spawned around the same time as Iron Man, during a period of intensely creative productivity at Marvel).
Since Iron Man had never undergone a live action adaptation (some Baby Boomers may recall the cheesy but great low-budget animated cartoon from the late-1960s), Marvel's newly formed motion picture studio somewhat riskily chose the character as the feature of their debut, self-financed production. It's a move that's likely to pay off handsomely for the studio, and ensure the development of future productions – for Iron Man is a winning combination of action and comic book heroics, held together by a fine performance by Robert Downey Jnr. – that is bound to be a worldwide crowd pleaser.
Directed by John Favreau (the writer of Swingers and sometime actor also has a role in the film as a security guard), Iron Man updates the original comic's Vietnam setting for the deserts of Afghanistan, where brilliant billionaire industrialist Anthony Stark (Downey Jnr.) is kidnapped by a Taliban like terrorist group and forced to build a destructive new weapon which his Stark Industries company has been selling to the allies. Instead, he uses his resources and intelligence to build a crude but powerful suit of armour with built-in flamethrower and jet pack, which he uses to escape from captivity (how he manages to construct the suit under the noses of the terrorist group is probably not something we are meant to think too hard about – or maybe it's the filmmaker's way of telling us that these Taliban operatives aren't very bright).
Returning home to his Malibu mansion, Stark's ordeal causes him to have a complete change of character. He cuts back on his hedonistic lifestyle, announces to his stunned shareholders that his company will no longer be involved in the building of weapons (something which particularly upsets his right hand man Obadiah Stane – played by a deliciously evil, shaven headed Jeff Bridges in pure Lex Luthor mode), and gets to work on improving his metallic suit design into a sleek, near-impregnable defence unit, which in true superhero fashion he uses to combat the forces of evil (or at least the un-American ones). Helping him in his quest are his loyal (and in love) assistant Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow in one of her few bearable performances) and Terrance Howard as his Air Force buddy Jim Rhodes (whom, based on a witty remark her makes while looking at one of Stark's Iron Man proto suits, is bound to be helping out in greater ways in the inevitable sequel). Samuel L Jackson also pops up in a neat little cameo after the end credits have run.
While Iron Man follows the standard format for a superhero film, it does it with a real sense of panache and excitement, and Robert Downey Jnr. imbues Tony Stark with humour and humanity, and a real sense of vulnerability (his kidnapping at the beginning of the film results in pieces of irretrievable shrapnel being lodged in his chest, necessitating the implantation of a powerful electromagnetic chest plate which stops the shrapnel from entering his heart, but also provides the source which powers his Iron Man suit). The story never allows itself to get too dark, with the suicidal alcoholism displayed by Stark in some of the more highly regarded Iron Man story arcs of the 1980s not being touched upon.
The only areas in which Iron Man disappoints is in its use of a somewhat generic soundtrack, which comes across as very gung-ho and Top Gun, and in its rather predictable climatic stand-off between Iron Man and the enormous Iron Monger (Jeff Bridges in his own metallic suit design), which is too reminiscent of the climax of Paul Verhoven's Robocop (1988). An action sequence earlier in the film, where Iron Man engages and outruns a couple of US fighter jets, is much more exciting and exhilarating.
Reminiscent at times of the cliffhanger adventure serials of the 1940s (in particular, 1949s King of the Rocketmen), Iron Man should satisfy the kids and the adults alike, and makes for a welcome afternoon of old-fashioned, escapist entertainment of the highest order.
Review Copyright 2008 John Harrison