Batman’s demons are rooted in vengeance, Spider-Man’s in adolescent insecurity, and the Hulk’s in rage, but for Iron Man—or, at least, the version put forth by Jon Favreau’s semi-spectacular summer spectacle—it’s issues of morality that define character. Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), a wunderkind weapons manufacturer living in the media-circus fast lane, is reborn after a POW stint as a righteous champion of those oppressed by the very military industrial complex over which his independent contractor firm rules. A sarcastic, arrogant, self-made superhero for today’s war on terror, Stark wields unparalleled Yankee technological prowess to oppose those malevolent Arab and American forces that seek domination and profit from conflict. As embodied by Downey (in perhaps the funniest headlining turn a comic book film has yet seen), he’s a rock-star-boozehound-genius-Christ transformed via a trial by fire into a noble do-gooder determined to save the world from warfare through the use of the ultimate war machine, a high-tech, heavily fortified suit of armor that—at least in its first, crude incarnation—brings the thunder like a mythic Golem.
Pompous smirk, suave cockiness, and nonchalant quips in tow, Downey boasts a natural physical and attitudinal resemblance to Stark, as well as a shared history with substance abuse, though the character’s alcoholism is in the nascent stages of development when Iron Man opens on a shot of the billionaire riding through Afghanistan in a Humvee, his tie undone and a glass of scotch in hand. Downey sets the tone immediately, bombarding his army escorts with playfully egotistical one-liners that are only halted by an ambush that leads to his apprehension by rebel forces. After a flashback to the previous 36 hours that establishes Stark’s backstory as a mogul so mainstream-cool, he appears on the cover of Rolling Stone, the Taliban-esque villains command him to build a mountain-decimating bomb for their nefarious use. Injured during the attack, Stark’s life is saved by fellow detainee Yinsen (Shaun Toub) both literally, with an artificial electromagnetic heart, and figuratively, by having his eyes opened to the fact that his artillery business doesn’t create peace but fuels global violence. Inspired to destroy those who would use his weapons for wicked purposes, Stark ignores his captors’ orders, escaping confinement by fashioning an enormous battle suit that, upon returning to the U.S., becomes the ass-kicking vehicle for his righteous crusade.
Thus, Iron Man—originally conceived in 1963 as an anti-communist force of democratic might—becomes the wish-fulfillment fantasy of modern America, a virtuous application of our unrivaled military hardware free from administrative buffoonery and private profiteering. That Stark is less a tormented brooder than a determined altruist (albeit one who nonetheless loves hot ladies and hot rods) is refreshing in this era of superheroic angst, and the film is at its best when reveling in Downey’s gift for letting bon mots dryly roll off his tongue, as well as his effortless blend of hedonistic insouciance and resolute intensity. Regrettably, though, Favreau gets carried away with his leading man, resulting in a protracted middle section—involving Stark’s return stateside to flirt with loyal secretary Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), quarrel with buddy Jim Rhodes (Terrence Howard), and infuriate business partner Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges)—in which Iron Man-construction sequences come at the expense of high-flying combat. Like many comic-book sagas before it, Iron Man struggles to balance the basic character-foundation requirements of an origin story with a good-versus-evil clash, in its case favoring the former to the point of blunting the latter’s concussive blast.
Save for a few transitional wipes, the faithful rendering of his titular titan’s ensemble, and the pitch-perfect malevolence of Bridges’s bald head and stately beard, Favreau largely avoids attempting to duplicate comic-book aesthetics, going instead for a big-budget sheen that matches his metallic hero’s red-and-gold luster. Iron Man’s initial foray onto the battlefield is this would-be blockbuster’s centerpiece, commencing with a display of awesome military versatility that segues into a propulsive airborne showdown with two fighter jets. After that, though, there’s simply not enough exhilarating slam-bang juice to the film, which bogs down in corporate intrigue when it should be putting its energy (and considerable budget) toward colossal clashes between Stark and his nemesis Stane, whose plan to use Iron Man technology to create—and then sell to governments and terrorists—a more brutal version of the suit only comes to fruition during the climactic moments. As Ang Lee did with his underappreciated Hulk, Favreau recognizes the necessity of entrancing larger-than-life personalities amid special-effects mayhem. What prevents his Iron Man from truly soaring, however, is the inadequacy (in both amount and quality) of its CG-ified artistry, the final payoff for two hours of mounting mechanized-action anticipation being merely a terse, murky, nighttime street scuffle that makes the similar Transformers finale look coherent by comparison.