Directed by Jon Favreau. Starring Robert Downey Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, Terrence Howard, Jeff Bridges, Shaun Toub, Faran Tahir, Leslie Bibb, Clark Gregg. (2008, PG-13, 126 min.)
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., May 2, 2008
He has not lost his mind. He can see; he is not blind. He can walk; he will not fall. He is so alive you can see the thoughts in his head, and, boy oh boy, you should care because he's the best actor of his generation. Bloodied but unbowed, wounded but walking, Downey Jr.'s sly take on Marvel Comics' cold warrior Iron Man elevates everything about this film. The actor's real-life troubles merge with those of Iron Man's alter ego, Tony Stark, the billionaire playboy and military industrialist with a drinking problem, and the result is, no pun intended, riveting. As a comic-book character, Iron Man never quite scaled the dime-store racks like Batman, Spider-Man, or any of Marvel/DC's other lantern-jawed megamen. His debut in Tales of Suspense #39 in 1963 was cool, to be sure, but not quite as cool as, say, Jim Steranko's vivid, hallucinatory Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. But the iron Avenger-to-be quickly fine-tuned his original battleship-gray supersuit and, Dewar's in hand, repulsor beams at the ready, and gal Friday Pepper Potts (played onscreen by Paltrow) by his side, went on to fight the good fight and stuck it out. Favreau's screen version is a magnificent origin story that holds its own just fine against Bryan Singer's convoluted X-Men and Sam Raimi's Spider-Man, and there are moments of both stunning action and earnest, subtle emotion. It's Downey Jr.'s show all the way, though. He twins the self-involved Stark with his own personal history to create a semiautobiographical un-Superman. Both men, reel and real, were critically wounded by their own hands, had an epiphany, dropped by a Burger King for a nosh, and then cleaned up their acts, but good. It's that subtext, alongside Downey Jr.'s unyielding charm and subtle underplaying of his role, that lodges in your mind. Well, that and Iron Man's first battle, his jerry-rigged, flame-throwing escape from an Afghanistan cave. Kudos, too, to Bridges, who, as baddie munitions magnate Obadiah Stane, almost (but not quite) steals a scene or two out from under his clanking co-star. And Favreau? If you'd told me 12 years ago that Swingers' comic linchpin would end up helming one of the best, most visceral, and downright fun forays of all the comic-book franchises waiting in the CGI wings, I'd have told you to amscray, kid. But what the hell? Turns out irony's good for your blood.