As you might expect, "Iron Man" is an elemental affair. The ear for dialogue is tin. The directing contains lead. The gases released are mostly sulfuric (although a few of them turn out to be noble). And it all mixes to form that complex compound whose formula we know by heart: the superhero blockbuster. I liked "Iron Man," but the I-know-it-by-heart part makes it somewhat resistible. It's entertainment out of a jar.
Even though the movie makes an admirable bid for political topicality by retrofitting the struggles of its Marvel Comics hero for our current wars, and even though the fantastic Robert Downey Jr. plays our slutty, metallic superhero, there's a sameness to it that makes the entire enterprise seem obligatory. Close your eyes, and it's "Superman Begins: Rise of the Silver Daredevil 3." Even the hard rock of the film's score sounds like heavy Muzak.
Downey is Tony Stark, a billionaire playboy, brilliant scientist, and extremely successful weapons manufacturer who lives in a sleek modernist fortress on a seaside cliff. On a trip to introduce a new slate of weapons in Afghanistan, Tony is kidnapped and locked for three months in a cave, by terrorists who demand that he replicate one of his designs. Instead, with his helper, Yinsen (Shaun Toub), he builds a giant iron suit and throws the insurgents around.
Tony returns to America appalled at the reach of his military-industrial success and decides to stop selling weapons. How he could not have known he was doing such a bang-up job as a warmonger is a mystery. But his about-face might have something to do with the glowing electromagnetic amulet in his chest keeping his heart clear of shrapnel left by a bomb his kidnappers set to trap him. Tony's a big softie now, ready, even, to consider real love with his assistant, "Pepper" Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow). Meanwhile, shares in Stark Industries plummet, and Tony's stupendously bald partner, Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges), pushes him aside to restore profitability.
What we have in parts of "Iron Man" is a nifty critique of corporate amorality, with remorseful Tony bound to square off against heartless Obadiah. Indeed the film's supervillain is a double-dealing big-business titan. But the most interesting action sequence requires Iron Man to save an Afghan village from the terrorists who threaten to tear families apart. It's cheesy and absurd (Iron Man has a lot of RoboCop in him). It's also effective. The international humanitarianism acknowledges that the sky sometimes falls in places other than New York.
So kudos to the actor-director Jon Favreau and his four credited screenwriters for trying to raise the blockbuster consciousness, although most of the good and excellent superhero films have politics or allegory on their minds (even that last, execrable "Fantastic Four" movie gave us a waterboarding sequence). "Iron Man" isn't remotely as adventurous as the Marvel series, which debuted in 1968, and which has had Tony Stark wrestle with alcoholism, Communism, Vietnam, and destructive misappropriations of the Iron Man armor - a few years ago going so far as to accept a secretary of defense appointment to do so.
Favreau and his team know they have to entertain us, too. But rather than craft a sci-fi action-drama out of geopolitics, they spray the movie with Teflon and complete a checklist: Cool toys? Here. Expensive effects? Check. Damsel with a twist of distress? Yup. Climactic nighttime brawl straight out of "Superman II" (but badly staged)? Got it. Incoherent plot? You bet. Some activity for Terrence Howard, who plays Jim Rhodes, Tony's Air Force-commander best friend, besides talking to Tony on phones? OK, they missed one.
Favreau is actually best in "Swingers" mode, when, say, the camera pulls back from Downey and Howard and reveals that what we think is a nightclub party is actually a strip joint on Stark's private jet. You half-expect Vince Vaughn to erupt from the cockpit.
Otherwise, Howard, Paltrow, and Bridges are in purely functional positions. It's odd seeing Paltrow gloss her way through what is basically an ingenue part - the sort of role that has enough to it to warrant a smart actor but not enough to keep you from noticing that Paltrow can do anything convincingly except stand around and be helpless. I swear I saw her check her watch once. Bridges undercooks his part, as if he's warming up to the idea of embodying evil. His bald head is consistently arresting. I wanted to crack it open and make an omelet.
But the movie is ultimately distinguished by its star. Either through uncertainty or misdirection, actors who play superheroes tend to let the technical departments steal the show. Out of their suits, the Christian Bales of the world still seem masked. Downey appears to like all this make-believe. Even the clunky dialogue sounds witty out of his mouth. This is not a part that makes great demands on his talent, and his slummy approach to it is amusing.
Downey could have taken a tragic tack. But he has fun just figuring out how to make the armor suit work. His sarcasm and almost drunken Tony Curtis body language transform the scenes of Iron Man flame-throwing or flying around: You believe it's Downey in there. And in case you don't, the cinematographer Matthew Libatique gives us Martin Schoeller-like images of the actor's face and eyes aglow beneath equipment and graphics. For such a standard, clumsy picture, the beauty in those shots is ludicrous. You expect to see a bunch of circuitry, and you get a flash of soul.