If you're not familiar with the superhero Iron Man then know this: he's not an alien, he doesn't get his powers from radiation exposure nor did he react to his parents' murder by dressing up as a bat. The movie adaptation was in gestation for nearly twenty years, but as comic book characters go, Iron Man was not well known to the general public. With a soundtrack of cranked-up rock and Robert Downey Jr nailing his role as arrogant playboy arms manufacturer Tony Stark, this isn't as angsty as the Spider-Man films or the X-Men franchise, with their superheroes fretting over their personal lives.
Even waking up to discover that he's been kidnapped by Afghan terrorists who demand he construct them a missile doesn't faze Stark, nor does the electro magnet wedged into his chest and running off a car battery, thereby preventing a shrapnel wound from killing him. The terrorists foolishly leave Stark and his new friend Yinsen (Shaun Toub) to work alone, so they shouldn't be surprised when the pair lash together a fully-armoured mechanical death suit and escape.
The film shifts gear dramatically here, like switching channels from a John Pilger documentary to an episode of 'The A-Team'. The movie acknowledges this, reveling in its mix of the audacious and the absurd. Later scenes of a totally redesigned Iron Man landing in an Afghan village, sorting out a terrorist siege in a couple of seconds by shooting the bad guys, then flying off again verge on Team America World Police.
Iron Man is very much about the thrill of being a multi-millionaire with a set of flying robo-armour; Tony Stark is a man who will blow away evil-doers without thinking twice. That may sound like a criticism, yet it's precisely what's been lacking in practically all twenty-first century superhero film adaptations, where too often angst and tangled romance have been piled onto characters at the expense of letting them get on with hurling colourful villains through walls.
Favreau's film is pure fun; the nods to real world political situations are admirably cosmetic with the main terrorist organisation (named The Ten Rings in a sly reference to Iron Man's comic book nemesis Mandarin), having no real motivation beyond being thoroughly rotten.
The military, mainly represented by Terrence Howard as Stark's buddy Jim Rhodes, are the good guys rather than a bunch of morally dubious warmongers, all of which may feel like being allowed a bacon sandwich for breakfast after years on a strictly enforced muesli regime.
Surprisingly, Gwyneth Paltrow works especially well here as Stark's PA 'Pepper' Potts, embracing a role which sees her pulling off industrial espionage in a tight skirt without ever once looking like this is beneath her. Instead the Oscar winning actress presents a character who's every bit as capable as her boss without having to resort to anything showy. As a result, Stark and Pepper's inevitable romance is rather charming, distantly echoing 1940s screwball comedy. Even running gags and knockabout antics between Stark and his waspish, computerised butler Jarvis manage to be jolly rather than irritating.
In a nutshell: Even though the classic Marvel characters appealed to readers precisely because they had hang-ups and wretched private lives, it's fantastic to see a superhero movie getting away from the navel-gazing to serve up overboard action with a knowing sense of humour. Robert Downey Jr gets the lead role exactly right.
By Jim Hall