Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man is a thing to marvel

Downey goes from scrap to Iron in his first superhero role.
Downey goes from scrap to Iron in his first superhero role.

I've always been more fond of comic-book heroes who emerge by intent rather than happenstance — the ones, like Batman's Bruce Wayne, whose transformation from average Joe into masked crusader is an act of will instead of the unintended result of a spider bite or a meteor ride to earth. The ones who, underneath the metallic breastplates and layers of spandex, remain ordinary bone and sinew.

Tony Stark, the unlikely hero of the Iron Man comics, is one such creation. A boy-genius inventor and heir to a weapons-manufacturing empire, Stark initially conceives of his crime-fighting alter ego in an act of life-saving self-preservation, donning a makeshift suit of rocket-powered armor in order to escape the bad guys who've abducted him during a Stark Industries field test. He first appeared in the March 1963 issue of Marvel's Tales of Suspense, just in time to fight the encroaching Red menace in Southeast Asia. In the 2008 film version of Iron Man, Stark finds himself at odds with Afghan insurgents called the Ten Rings, who, in a wonderful Taliban-era irony, come armed with a black-market supply of Stark's own war machines.

Whereas the comic based Stark in part on Howard Hughes, Robert Downey Jr.'s version is more like a defense-industry Mark Cuban or Richard Branson — a coiffed and tanned, media-savvy technocrat whose too-cool-for-the-planet attitude says that as long as the market is up and we're kicking Charlie's (or Hadji's) ass, it doesn't matter how we're doing it. But Stark soon gets his comeuppance in a desert-chic cave where, his shrapnel-riddled heart kept a-ticking by a jury-rigged electromagnet and a Ten Rings doyen demanding a custom-built smart bomb from Stark's newly deployed "Freedom line," he realizes that maybe WMDs aren't so great after all. But Stark's decision to dismantle the family business' most profitable arm hardly goes over well with his longtime business partner, Obadiah Sane (Jeff Bridges).

Though he remains best known for writing and co-starring in 1996's hipster totem Swingers, director Jon Favreau honed his skills with a couple of richly imaginative, resolutely lo-fi kid movies, Elf and Zathura. And Iron Man, believe it or not, maintains Favreau's fondness for the handmade over the prefab, for erector sets over CRPGs. It's an exemplary comic-book fantasia.

There's plenty of CGI to go around, but Favreau uses it mostly to enhance rather than supplant the movie's physical dimension. Stark's initial scrap-metal Iron Man exoskeleton, in fact, looks like the love child of L. Frank Baum's Tin Man and Klaatu from The Day the Earth Stood Still. And Downey is a marvel to watch, his body a shimmying human Jell-O mold as he tries to get the hang of his newly jet-propelled hands and feet, his face a kaleidoscope of exhilaration and terror.

The movie — and I mean this as the highest possible compliment — uses the better part of an hour to really get going. Rather than cutting directly to the chase, it takes its time to involve us in the characters, who are relatively three-dimensional as comic-book movies go and are played by the kind of actors who know how to make a lot out of a little. As Stark's dutiful, waiting-to-be-unbuttoned girl, Pepper Potts, Gwyneth Paltrow is particularly appealing, while Bridges manages to invest a glimmer of conflicted humanity in a role that all but comes with "Villain" tattooed across its chest. Even when the plot of Iron Man kowtows to convention, the movie's personality — hip to the times without ever resorting to self-congratulatory snark — keeps it zipping along. Rarer than a grown man in a rocket suit, it's a summer blockbuster that comes to entertain first and shill second.