There’s something to be said for a superhero movie that opens with the head-banging power chords of AC/DC’s “Back in Black.”
“Iron Man” is a rock-and-roll superhero movie, featuring a protagonist who has the monetary resources of Bruce Wayne, but the libido of Mick Jagger.
Robert Downey Jr., perfectly cast as Tony Stark, AKA Iron Man, gives the movie its charm and its soul.
Downey Jr., certainly one of his generation’s best actors, can spit out silver-tongued sarcastic ripostes with glee, but his performance is also subtle; he makes Stark, and therefore Iron Man, a credible human character, and this is what makes “Iron Man” one of the best superhero movies I’ve ever seen.
For those of you unfamiliar with the “Iron Man” mythology – and I was, so you’re not alone – the story begins with Stark, an amoral weapons developer, being captured by terrorists while in Afghanistan to promote a new missile his company has developed (apparently in the comic book, which took place in the ’60s, the bad guys were Vietnamese).
The terrorists order Stark to reconstruct the missile, a demand he initially seems to comply with. But Stark, in fact, is using his time to build a state-of-the-art armor suit with flight capabilities that will allow him to escape from and destroy the terrorist camp.
Stark’s plan works, but in the process of his escape he accidentally destroys the armor suit, leaving pieces of it scattered across the desert.
When he returns home, Stark is a changed man. No longer content to build weapons, he wants to do something beneficial for humanity, which confounds Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges), the head of Stark’s company and Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), his dutiful and sharp-tongued secretary.
The rest of the movie follows Stark as he develops a more advanced version of his armored suit and culminates in a battle royal with Stark’s arch-nemesis, the Iron Monger.
The story fits snugly within the conventional superhero mythos, but Downey Jr. and director Jon Favreau lent the film a subversive edge, including a great moment where Stark, under fire in Afghanistan, is sent flailing into the air by a missile marked ‘Stark Industries.’
Downey Jr. seems to relish this role, putting his all into every scene. Like Johnny Depp in the first “Pirates of the Caribbean” movie, Downey Jr. imbues his role with sly humor that works to undercut the sense of self-righteousness that can pervade superheroes and films about them.
And props also to Paltrow and Bridges, who both seem to be having more fun here than they’ve had in a long time.
Filled with great performances, exciting action sequences, and a clever (and contemporarily-relevant) story, “Iron Man” is a masterpiece of superhero movies and helluva way to kick off the summer movie season.
Staff writer Jeff Schwartz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.