Comic-book-to-film franchise starters often sag under the weight of creation stories, establishing conflict between the super-heroic and super-villainous and introducing a roster of iconic characters familiar to comics geeks but unknown to the general movie-going public. That's an awful lot of exposition for any one film to handle. Jon Favreau's Iron Man wrestles with those responsibilities as well as a relatively unique conundrum: How do you make audiences care about a character whose face is hidden under a metallic scowl? The Iron Man filmmakers' answer is to cast Robert Downey Jr. in the lead role and keep him out of the Iron Man suit for as long as possible.
Downey stars as dashing billionaire playboy Tony Stark—part Howard Hughes, part Errol Flynn—who leads a life unencumbered by reflection until he's captured and held hostage in Afghanistan by terrorists using his company's weapons. Downey escapes by building a crude version of his Iron Man suit. Upon returning home, Downey perfects the robotic flying suit, but when he announces that his company is getting out of the weapons business he makes himself an inviting target to rivals, including enigmatic father figure Jeff Bridges, who looks disconcertingly like Winter Kills co-star Sterling Hayden with his shaved head and mad-prophet beard.
Iron Man takes its sweet time getting Downey into the Iron Man suit, and it doles out big action setpieces sparingly once man has fused triumphantly with machine. Downey is so much fun as a breezy cad that it's a shame he spends so much time brooding and luxuriating in obsession. Like Ang Lee's Hulk, Iron Man is a comic-book blockbuster characterized as much by heavyweight acting and sober intellectual concerns about the use and misuse of power and technology as the usual comic-book foolishness. But Iron Man finds a much more palatable, audience-friendly balance between delirious spectacle and tortured introspection thanks largely to Downey, a great actor who's also a great entertainer. His relationship with a fire-extinguishing robot is funnier and more poignant than the central relationship between humans in most movies, and there's nothing arbitrary about love interest/long-suffering assistant Gwyneth Paltrow. Having gotten all that exposition out of the way in a brisk and entertaining fashion, Favreau paves the way for more pure fun and excitement in future entries. Iron Man is the rare comic-book movie that makes the prospect of a sequel seem like a promise instead of a threat.