As played by Robert Downey Jr., Tony Stark, the billionaire weapons manufacturer and inventor who becomes "Iron Man," is about as far from the Clark Kent mold as you can get. We first see him nursing a whiskey in the back of a military vehicle in Afghanistan, where he's been demonstrating his latest breakthrough missile, the Jericho, to U.S. forces. Downey's Stark, who sports a devilish Vandyke, is a celebrity playboy and world-class cynic who comports himself like a rock star, has a genius IQ and brushes off questions about the morality of selling weapons as if they were specs of lint on his tailor-made suits. Not, at first glance, typical superhero material.
Soon enough, in director John Favreau's updating of the Marvel Comics tale, Stark will have a mighty change of heart, both physically and morally. Captured by a power-crazed Afghan warlord (in the comic's origin tale, created in the '60s, he was abducted by communists in Vietnam), the badly wounded tycoon is held in a cave, tortured and forced to create his missile for the warlord. Instead, he cobbles together the prototype of his Iron Man suit (how he does this without his captors noticing on their video surveillance screens is a plot point one doesn't want to ponder too closely) and bursts free. Back in his high-tech Malibu workshop, his social conscience now raised, he'll turn out the definitive Iron Man suit, which will enable him to go flying with superhuman speed around the globe battling evil in what Marvel and Paramount Pictures are hoping will be many future installments.
Many people had a hard time imagining Downey donning superhero garb. In truth, it's hard to imagine "Iron Man" without him. For without his ironic hipster spin, without his rapid, off-speed line readings, which can make the most ordinary exposition sound like tossed-off improvs, this would be just another generic action picture with risible villains, a conventional story arc, and the inevitable showdown between two lumbering hunks of CGI metal—Iron Man vs. the even larger Iron Monger.
In the casting of Downey, and the selection of Favreau (the writer of "Swingers" and director of "Elf" and "Zathura") Marvel, which now produces its own movies, clearly aims to put a contemporary spin on this franchise. Up to a point, they succeed: Downey's presence gives the movie a refreshing edge and Favreau doesn't, until the end, cave in to the constant demand for special-effects fireworks. But then "Iron Man" is, by its nature, more down to earth than Marvel's mutant-happy "X-Men" or "Fantastic Four," where just about everybody has superhuman powers they're eager to demonstrate. Stark, who has no innate superpowers, is closer to the DC Comics' wealthy Bruce Wayne, a.k.a. Batman. His magic is all in the suit, which functions as armor, weapon and personal jet. There's a whiff of Batman, too, in the robotic lab assistant who speaks, like Alfred the butler, with distinctly British cadences. But Stark doesn't have Batman's weight; there's nothing gnawing at his soul except his newly discovered sense of justice.
Favreau and his screenwriters (Mark Fergus and Hawk Ostby; Art Marcum and Matt Holloway) give the genre a new coat of paint, but the reinventions don't go deep. Though they use Afghanistan as a backdrop, they carefully avoid any political specifics—you won't hear the word Muslim uttered here—and the bad guys, led by the nasty Raza (Faran Tahir), are generic power-hungry villains who could have been plucked out of a James Bond movie of any era. There's a bigger villain lurking behind them (the one who becomes Iron Monger), but for the sake of all three people who won't instantly figure out who the treacherous one is, I won't spoil the reveal.
Gwyneth Paltrow plays Stark's loyal, efficient gal Friday, Pepper Potts. It's a stock character, but Paltrow and Downey give their scenes a playful sexual undercurrent that keeps things lively. Downey has always been the flirtiest of actors, and Paltrow knows how to follow his lead. Jeff Bridges, sporting a beard and shaved head, lends heft to the role of Obadiah Stane, Stark Industry's second in command, whose capitalist heart is mortified when his boss turns over his new, pacifist leaf. On the other hand, Terrence Howard's considerable talents are mostly wasted in the rather thankless role of Stark's Air Force liaison.
Favreau's imagery doesn't soar—"Iron Man" has none of the sweeping lyricism that made Bryan Singer's much maligned "Superman" a pleasure to watch—but he's paced the tale cleanly and well; it never feels overstuffed. Whether the movie has enough mayhem to satisfy 12-year-olds--and whether they respond to Downey's sly, ironic spin—remains to be seen. Like it or not, this summer season is piled high with rippling, righteous superheroes. For those whose hearts don't race at this prospect, "Iron Man" may not be distinguished enough to convert you to the cause. But Downey and Favreau give the movie a quirky flavor it can call its own. For that we can be grateful.