Not too light, not too dark… a bit grey, then? Not at all: this is buoyant, bright, a constant breeze. But still it hovers somewhere on the superhero-adap spectrum between the good and the great. Not as flyweight as Fantastic Four or Daredevil or Ghost Rider, but just missing the myth-spinning splendour and heft of a Spidey 2 or X2 or Batman Begins.
Maybe, then, they’ve nailed their source material just a bit too well. Iron Man’s one of the original, longest-flying Marvel titans – forged in the early 60s, a founder member of The Avengers, idolised by Ghostface Killah. Still, you don’t see his masked mug on as many bedspreads and backpacks as Hulk, Webhead or Wolverine. After 40-odd years, he’s still B-list. Could be that the character’s just not as relatable as some of his labelmates, awkward teens identifying more easily with the outsider-angst of X-Men than with a flashy-pants squillionaire industrialist.
So it’s a must that the casting be imaginative, colourful, enticing. Aping the unconventional wisdom of Michael Keaton’s Batman or Tobey Maguire’s Spider-geek, the moviemakers have looked leftfield and mined a rough diamond. Robert Downey Jr’s a live wire as IM’s alter-ego Tony Stark, filtering out the potential smarm (picture Tom Cruise in the role…) but channeling the unpredictable charm and drive of creator Stan Lee’s part-inspiration Howard Hughes. The star bullseyes every Martini-dry one-liner (“I’m starving, get me a scotch”; “This is the Fun-vee; the Humvee’s back there”) and has chemistry with /everyone/: baldy/beardy/shifty right-hand man Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges); military liaison/best buddy James ‘Rhodey’ Rhodes (Terrence Howard); indulgent assistant/flirt-mate Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow, ginger-haired, hot); vampy journos, starstruck GIs, earnest Afghans… There’s even cute, running repartee with Stark’s anthropomorphised machine-shop ‘bots.
This isn’t RDJ just larking about, taking an easy summer-fluff payday. He sinks some straight-faced steel into Tony’s moral journey, which begins when the US army convoy shipping him from a desert weapons test is shelled by Afghan insurgents. Coming to in cave-captivity, Stark’s ordered to make a mega-missile for the militants; but he has other designs… Cue a plausibility-bothering A-Team scene of our genius inventor hammering, smelting and soldering until he’s finished the clunking prototype of his flame-spraying power-armour. Hey, terrorists: terrorise this…
For a spell, Iron Man toys intriguingly – if superficially – with the idea of a superhero righting real-world wrongs, ol’ shellhead swooping to the rescue of some imperilled refugees he’s seen on the news. There’s also A Message that paraphrases the Spider-mantra via Lord Of War – with great profits comes great accountability – as a conscience-pricked Stark decides to stop flogging WMDs around the globe (“I have more to offer this world than just making things that blow up!”).
But really, you don’t need to worry too much about the geopolitics. Or any massive emotional demands. This is holiday entertainment that cleaves to its studio mandate, laying foundations for a possible franchise. Trouble is, that means another join-the-dots origin-story of the sort that’s swamped multiplexes since X-Men opened the spandex renaissance eight years ago. So we get a wedge of ability-exploring trial-and-error scenes (Iron Man spiralling all over the sky like a faulty firework) building belatedly to a true mettle-test against a vintage comic-book foe (the super-sized Iron Monger).
The pacing isn’t slow, but it may irk ADD kids that over an hour in, the hero /still/ isn’t wearing his trademark red-and-gold shinies. They might also find the final car-crunching smackdown kind of Transformers-lite. A proven juggler of moppet/adult appeal with Elf and Zathura, director Jon Favreau’s a thoroughly safe pair of hands, but his style-stamp’s often as inconspicuous as his cameo as one of Stark’s yes-men. Bits and pieces bedazzle: the cool wonder of Downey Jr air-surfing in his garage, scads of sexy holo-technology, a couple of shots of glow-in-the-dark portent… but in terms of the bigger picture, Fav’s lightness of touch isn’t a match for the verve and vision of a Raimi, Singer or Nolan. And aside from Bridges’ cotton-mouthed menace, there’s usually sod-all for the best comic-book cast since Batman Begins to do. Still, who needs ‘em when you’ve got Downey Jr’s comeback-kid charisma on full burn? Chilled or animated, snipey or righteous, he scatters the off-the-peg vibes with a jet-boot blast of star quality. Clearly, it’s not the super-clothes that make the Man…
A mild case of origin-story syndrome - long build, fleeting pay-off - but fine FX, witty writing and a dynamite Downey Jr oil the rusty mechanics of a familiar arc. Solid start to a series, then. Now what else ya got?