[SPOILER WARNING IN EFFECT]
Shining through here as ever, Iron Man confirms that Robert Downey Jr. is, like his director Jon Favreau, a comedian and entertainer at heart. For all the great-looking effects and gadget-cool of this superhero movie, it's Downey and his charisma (to say that very heart) that drive and sustain this picture. Indeed, it's a film about, in a very literal way, Downey's heart: his commitment to his particular brand (we might say his art) of acting. Downey is middle-aged so—while this is an origin story for a comic book franchise-at-stake—this is also, in the light and fashion of Hollywood, an evaluation of a career, one already celebrated, and primed for reinvention; or, better, reassertion.
Reviewing David Fincher's Zodiac last spring, San Francisco Chronicle critic Mick LaSalle wrote, "After 20 years of these colorful, detailed performances, it might be time to stop thinking of Downey as quirky original or an eccentric favorite and start thinking of him as a significant American artist." Iron Man should, if Zodiac did not, cement Downey's status in Hollywood pictures as such a valuable artist. Favreau has said he planned Iron Man as the first in a trilogy so perhaps this film, and its sequels, will do for Downey what the Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy did for Johnny Depp. One can hope. Given the strength of Downey's performance and the crowd-pleasing set pieces, to say nothing of the upcoming Tropic Thunder and a cameo in Edward Norton's The Incredible Hulk, it doesn't seem a stretch.
Iron Man begins inside a Humvee in Afghanistan, Downey already acting at full speed, ribbing his soldier escorts with a scotch-on-the-rocks in hand. His Tony Stark is quick-witted and playful, eager to please in a selfish, vain way, enjoying all the delusions (of grandeur, of self-importance) that come with celebrity. Posing for a snapshot, though, comfort is erased: the convoy's lead vehicle explodes and Stark's Air Force guards all die, one by one, as the almost-tank sustains enemy fire. Stark/Downey flees his Humvee safety and gets blown unconscious by a missile bearing the name of his company, Stark Industries. After a prologue detailing his philandering just 36 hours prior, Stark wakes up a prisoner, a car battery-powered electromagnet where his heart once beat. A terrorist group has hijacked him to build a replica of the latest deadly weapon Stark Industries developed. Instead he builds a new heart (a coil of white-light energy radiating from the center of his chest) and a new body (a head-to-toe soldered second skin of sheet metal).
Somehow it's fitting, even forgivable, that this prototype reflects the film's clunky opening: reinvention is a fix-it job. Which isn't to say the screenplay gets any smarter as the picture progresses, but just as Tony Stark and Robert Downey Jr. continue to experiment with a new way of life, indeed a new form of life, as a superhero, so too does Iron Man settle into its groove thanks to Favreau's handling of his handpicked, equally excellent supporting cast. Gwyneth Paltrow plays Stark's dutiful assistant Pepper Potts with a newfound buoyancy, perhaps signaling a new course for a new phase of her own career. Jeff Bridges doesn't relish the role of Obadiah Stone so much as inhabit it—nothing is forced—and prove himself reliably self-effacing as ever. Terrence Howard doesn't do much as Stark's old buddy Jim Rhodes, but I'm sure we'll see more of him as the series progresses, and his affable ease will provide a nice foil for Downey's blithe irony.
While Iron Man may never sublime the conventions one expects from (and encounters in) a first installment in a series such as this, this core of performers, as guided by Favreau's steady vision and light touch (a serviceable job), helps make the film more successful than previous Marvel adaptations (like X-Men and Spiderman) if not DC (Superman Returns and Batman Begins). However, unlike those adaptations (both Marvel and DC alike), Iron Man is funny and playful (not mopey or serious): when Downey announces at the end, "I am Iron Man," it's a joyful acceptance of the spotlight. It's not Norma Desmond, but it's sure more thrilling than disappearing into privacy or anonymity in the darkness or the crowd. No, this is an all caps affirmation: this is Robert Downey Jr. ready for the limelight.
House Next Door contributor Ryland Walker Knight is the editor of the blog Vinyl Is Heavy.