He's not Batman or Superman. Our pop-culture consciousness isn't cluttered with faces of all the actors who've played him, or with the memories of earnest '50s black-and-white TV dramas or campy, candy-colored '60s sitcoms. No, there's just this movie and what a doozy it is, a popcorn-a-licious introduction to Iron Man.
In fact, this might well be the perfect comic-book flick. It's pertinent enough to feel like the real world and tongue-in-cheek enough not to get heavy about it, with enough self-respect to be sincere. It even manages to be funny in more places than you might imagine. Oh, sure, there's no question that this is Iron Man the spirit of the character is absolutely intact. But the key thing is: Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) doesn't think he's a "superhero."
And he isn't. He has no superpowers, unless you count genius and a preternatural ability to charm the ladies. He heads up weapons contractor Stark Industries, where he actually designs and builds deadly toys. He's a brilliant engineer and inventor as well as an inveterate party animal who happens to be as attractive and charismatic (if in a slightly smarmy way) as ... Robert Downey Jr.
On a trip to Afghanistan to push a new weapons system on the U.S. Army, Stark is injured and kidnapped by cave-dwelling terrorists, and whips up his first flying suit of armor as a way to escape.
The funny stuff? It's all Downey and the easygoing, reflexive snark that is his trademark (though the snark doesn't undermine the film's sincerity). Instead, it's his way of armoring a character with deep and intriguing flaws, against having to acknowledge those flaws. One recurring joke about Stark treating the robotics in his lab like sentient creatures is layered with poignancy because he does count these machines among his few close relationships.
His interaction with other characters rings true as well. For example, his relationship with his human assistant, Pepper (Gwyneth Paltrow), is fraught with land mines that make for some of the movie's best moments.
And when Stark is angry? Downey goes nuclear with it like a slow meltdown, not a mushroom cloud. But whether Downey's Stark is funny or mad or somewhere in between, Downey himself exudes a sense of effortlessness, as if he were making it up as he goes along. Some of Stark's offhandedness was ad-libbed by Downey, but surely the four screenwriters Mark Fergus, Hawk Ostby, Art Marcum and Matt Holloway contributed their fair share.
Director Jon Favreau knows to just stay the hell out of Downey's way and let him run with the story though in this story, there's relatively little of the crime-fighting you'd expect from a superhero tale. Stark goes ballistic when he discovers how his company's weapons are being used, and he engages in a bit of do-goodery. But still, the film plays much more in the science-fiction sandbox than the comic-book corner. Think RoboCop meets Transformers, not Batman with metal armor.
But this is, of course, deep down, a tale with comic-book origins, and the very funny final line of the film leaves no doubt that there will be a sequel.
It's a nice feeling for a movie to leave you with the sense that that's a promise, not a threat.