After a disappointing four months, the summer movie season is finally here. “Iron Man” smashed into theaters last weekend to the tune of $100 million, the second highest opening ever for a non-sequel. Not only is the film a refreshing breeze of cool air, it’s also one of the strongest comic book adaptations to hit the big screen.
The story begins with Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), a self-absorbed billionaire weapons manufacturer who is captured by a militant group while in Afghanistan. After constructing a crude metal suit, he narrowly escapes and returns home, vowing to change his ways and never sell weapons again. In hopes of becoming an agent for the common good, Stark builds a high-tech version of the suit, but the top executive of Stark Industries, Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges), has other plans.
First and foremost, the casting of Downey was pure genius. He has quietly been stealing scenes in recent films such as “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” and “Zodiac,” and his turn in “Iron Man” will surely catapult him atop Hollywood’s A-list. Downey perfectly embodies Stark, delivering charm and narcissist wisecracks while exhibiting the intellectualism and womanizing side seen in the comics. Perhaps most notable is how Downey makes Stark’s development of a conscience natural, and his drive to avenge past wrongs becomes more than simple fodder. This duality makes Stark a comic book rarity – a living, breathing character.
While the rest of the cast tends to be somewhat underwritten, they clearly benefit from Downey’s infectious energy. Gwyneth Paltrow is surprisingly good as Stark’s assistant and blossoming love interest, while Terrance Howard as Stark’s military friend and Shaun Toub as a prisoner who helps Stark escape are solid additions. The script certainly leaves plenty of room for its characters to grow, and the inspired casting foundation should serve the purpose well.
Another reason the film works is actor-turned-director Jon Favreau, who handles the proceedings like an old pro. Known for character-driven films like “Swingers” and “Elf,” Favreau keeps the characters, specifically Downey, at the center of the story. While there’s not as much action as one might expect and the villain never poses the most formidable threat, Favreau allows these shortcomings to be overlooked. He also is effective at transporting the comic into a modern setting by interweaving political and anti-war components, the likes of which were qualities Marvel was founded upon.
In the end, “Iron Man” is one of those rare breeds that should please both fans and mainstream audiences. While it’s far from the greatest comic film of all time, it is the strongest since “Batman Begins,” and as the scene after the end credits indicates, the next installment should only get better. Move over Spider-Man, there’s a new superhero in town.