“Iron Man” doesn’t follow the blueprint behind previous superhero adaptations.
The geopolitics are as nasty as what we read in the morning newspaper, and our hero isn’t a nerd or gamma-radiated doctor, but a boozy entrepreneur.
What “Iron Man” does share with the best superhero movies is how seriously it treats its subject — no self-aware winking at genre conventions here.
It also boasts a performance by Robert Downey Jr. that should vault him back into Hollywood’s good graces — and ours.
“Iron Man” opens with arms manufacturer — and unrepentant playboy — Tony Stark (Mr. Downey) visiting U.S. military members in Afghanistan.
A brilliantly photographed attack on Stark’s convoy leaves him critically injured and at the mercy of attackers who drag him back to their camp. He’s saved by a fellow detainee who creates a crude device to keep shrapnel lodged in Stark’s chest from reaching his heart. It’s a slick updating of the “Iron Man” mythos that both honors the past and acknowledges the present.
Stark’s captors demand that he build a new weapon to help them battle U.S. forces.
Oh, he builds a weapon all right, but not the one they expect.
He starts hammering away on an iron suit he hopes will enable him to escape, all the while pretending to do what he has been told.
A few nuts and bolts later, Iron Man is born. The suit might be clunky, but it’s good enough to help him leave the insurgent camp in tatters.
Stark returns home a changed man. His time overseas taught him that some Stark Industries weapons are winding up in the enemy’s hands, and he suspends weapons-making until he can figure out a way to prevent that from happening.
That angers Stark’s longtime ally and business partner, Obadiah Stane (a chrome-domed Jeff Bridges) who has to answer to Stark shareholders — and his own ambitions.
Stark doesn’t care. All he wants to do is perfect the iron suit that saved his life.
An early flashback establishes Stark as a hedonist who would put Hugh Hefner to shame. Nevertheless, he’s also an electrical genius light-years ahead of his peers. With great power comes great ego, so he ignores advice flowing from assistant Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) and his right-hand man, Rhodey (Terrence Howard).
Director Jon Favreau (“Elf”) makes sure nearly every scene in “Iron Man” defies expectations. Easy laughs are rarely attempted, but the few comical bits hit their mark. Our hero’s change of heart is sudden but not implausibly complete. Only a few moments scream sequel — as when Rhodey looks at a spare iron suit and mutters, “Maybe next time.”
The dearth of action will be where “Iron Man” may blow its good buzz. That’s too bad, because the few battle sequences carve out their own spectacular style. It’s not the orgy of fast cuts we have come to expect from recent drivel like “Jumper.” Short, sweet punches and parries are what will leave adults feeling like eighth-graders again.
Despite too little screen time, Miss Paltrow and Mr. Howard manage to flesh out their supporting roles beyond the screenplay’s limitations.
Mr. Downey strikes the perfect note as the embattled Stark, too, tossing off comic morsels while reinventing his career.
“Iron Man” is a superhero film for the 21st century, starring a tin man who finds a new heart to guide him.
TITLE: “Iron Man”
RATING: PG:13 (Adult language, a sexual situation and violence)
CREDITS: Directed by Jon Favreau. Screenplay by Mark Fergus, Hawk Ostby, Art Marcum and Matt Halloway.
RUNNING TIME: 120 minutes
WEB SITE: https://ironmanmovie.marvel.com/
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS