From the Marvel Comics library comes Iron Man, a superhero epic starring Robert Downey Jr. as a weapons designer who, after nearly being killed by a bomb that literally has his name on it, retools himself as a knight in shining armor. Iron not being all that shiny, Downey's suit is sheathed in gold-plated titanium, one of the many ways in which the comic-book series, which began in 1963, has been brought, humming and thrumming, into the 21st century. The biggest way, though, is with Downey himself - the Hollywood hepcat who's always a step ahead of whomever he's sharing a scene with. Why they didn't call this Irony Man instead of Iron Man is beyond me, because Downey pours it on. But that works for the movie somehow, keeps us from taking it too seriously. It's fun having a superhero who's a total wise-ass.
He is at first, anyway. Originally modeled on Howard Hughes, Tony Stark is a billionaire playboy/war profiteer. When he's not selling the Pentagon his latest gizmo, he's "going 12 for 12 with last year's Maxim covers," and just to drive that point home, the aged Hugh Hefner does a cameo. But we're supposed to notice that Stark himself is a bit of a gizmo, a Soldier of Fortune with a computerized chip where his heart should be. Not for long, though. Taken prisoner by a Taliban-esque group during a weapons demo in Afghanistan, Stark's ordered to manufacture one of his cutting-edge Jericho missiles. Instead, he manufactures an even more cutting-edge carapace that makes Robocop look like a box turtle. It fires various things, including fire, but it mostly absorbs blows. And a later version even flies, sending Stark into orbit from his Bat Cave-like lair overlooking the Pacific Ocean near Malibu.
That's right, Malibu. And the house, now that I think about it, is less like the Bat Cave and more like something off MTV's "Cribs." But so what? Do all superheroes have to take themselves so seriously? Iron Man's two sets of screenwriters have come up with some nice snarky lines for Downey to deliver. Or maybe Downey came up with them; they seem improvised. And when the movie's not in Inspector Gadget mode, there are some enjoyable exchanges between Stark and his Girl Friday, Pepper Potts, whom Gwyneth Paltrow endows with the just the right combination of demure and bossy. Also enjoyable are the exchanges between Stark and his business partner, a Daddy Warbucks type played by a chrome-domed Jeff Bridges. Who knew how much his hair was contributing to Bridges' handsomeness? Here, he looks like James Lipton as interpreted by Will Ferrell.
Downey looks a little weird too, with his neatly trimmed Vandyke and his newly muscled torso. He's just not our idea of a superhero, which plays in the movie's favor. Who needs another Bruce Wayne, wound so tightly you can practically hear the ticking? Comparatively speaking, Stark lets it all hang out. And Downey brings his considerable personal baggage to the role, from rehab to relapse and beyond. "Let's face it, this is not the worst thing you've caught me doing," he says to Paltrow when she walks in on him while his robots are undressing him. And Downey all but winks at the camera when he says it. Like Stark, Downey's somehow pulled himself together and turned himself into a force for good, even if good, in this case, means launching a potential billion-dollar movie franchise.
How they'll handle Stark's notorious drinking problem in the sequels is anybody's guess, alcohol not having been Downey's particular poison. But here's hoping Downey holds on to that melancholy look in his eyes, those dark pools of regret. He gives Iron Man a heart it might not otherwise have had, even when he's just joking around, and he propels the movie forward with the mercurial flow of his thoughts. I can't say the movie always keeps up with him. Director Jon Favreau handles the action well enough, but he doesn't seem to think visually. What should be big moments - e.g., Iron Man emerging from a cave, our first good look at him - seem smaller because Favreau doesn't know where to put the camera. On the other hand, some of the smaller moments - e.g., Stark hanging out in his basement workshop - seem bigger because Favreau knows exactly where to put Downey: front and center.