Tony Stark. Genius, playboy, war profiteer, hero, gadgeteer, addict, and Republican. This character is certainly the most complex protagonist to be found in a comic book movie, and it is he, and the brilliant portrayal he is given by Robert Downey Jr., that sets this film apart. Aside from him, what we have is a solid but rather routine action blockbuster in which there’s a good guy, some bad guys, heroic derring do, a final battle against overwhelming odds... all the usual crap. But with this character at the center, the film becomes something unique.
And Downey isn’t the only high-grade actor here. Jeff Bridges, as Stark’s crafty friend and mentor Obadiah Shane, disappears almost unrecognizably into his role, and carries off a multilayered performance with the unassumingly superb craft that is his hallmark. And “Pepper” Potts is Gwyneth Paltrow, an actress that some have mocked, but for whom I have considerable respect. Acting and character are indeed the film’s strong suit... and that’s saying something when you’ve got action like this.
A word of warning, for the sake of public safety: If you go to see this movie, don’t go on a motorcycle. Because when you come out, you will have an irresistable impulse to ride it really really fast. Even if you go in a sensible family car, you’d better watch yourself at the wheel on the way home.
The plot: Tony Stark has inherited a corporation from his equally brilliant father. The corporation makes weapons. He goes to Afghanistan to demonstrate a new missile for US brass. While there, he is captured by a local warlord, in a firefight that very nearly kills him. The warlord orders him to duplicate the new missile.
Instead, he builds something that allows him to escape — a crude but terrifically strong suit of powered armor.
His months in captivity, his lasting injuries, and the discovery that the nominal enemies of our War on Terror have plentiful supplies of the weapons he builds, lead him to a change of heart about how he makes a living. He devotes his time to refining his powered suit idea, making it into a miniature aircraft. But there are those who don’t want to see such a potent tool wasted on peaceful ends...
Conflict and combat ensue. There’s action, and flying, and crashes and smashes, and comic book level pseudoscience, and double crosses, and mano-a-mano showdownery, and plot holes, and pyrotechnics... and at the core of it, there’s a whiskey swilling womanizer who finds purpose in his life, a lonely tinkerer who haltingly steps outside his protected comfort zone, a suave charmer who struggles to speak from the heart, a selfish thrillseeker who now truly puts his ass on the line for the risks that matter... a newly minted opponent of warmongering who is now driven to kill. And all of this change is depicted in a low-key, naturalistic way, without any emo’d up overdramatization. And nowadays that’s something I very much appreciate in a movie.
Some more things I appreciate: it’s nice to see the bad guy’s smooth lies be smooth enough to fool us in the audience too, so the protagonist doesn’t look like a credulous n00b for believing them. And it’s nifty to occasionally see a hero character who’s a motormouth, a la Lord Peter Wimsey, instead of the strong silent type. That’s one aspect of the character which could never have succeeded without Downey.
Plus, the movie has some decent laughs, and they aren’t fake or forced. Aaaaaaand... it’s got rock&roll. Plus lots of easter-eggs for hardcore fans, most of which I didn’t catch. So if you’re a billionaire considering where to invest your movie-viewing, this one is a solid addition to your portfolio.