Show business is like any other business. Car makers were, for a while, selling America SUVs because they were not only what people wanted but they were also immensely profitable. Change ‘car makers’ for ‘movie studios’ and ‘SUVs’ for ‘super-hero action films’ and that sentence is as accurate for Hollywood as it is for Detroit. And, just as some SUVs are well-made and some aren’t, so it is for super-hero action films. Iron Man, directed by John Favreau, is actually exceptionally well-made, bringing a Marvel Comics hero created in the ’60s to the 21st-century big-screen with Robert Downey Jr. starring as multi-millionaire arms mogul Tony Stark, who builds a high-tech suit of powered armor that makes him a one-man army. And yeah, the movie is shiny and gleaming and high-tech, just like the suit of armor; just like the suit of armor, though, it’s what’s inside that really counts.
And for both the movie and the suit, what’s inside is Robert Downey Jr. A few years ago, when Downey was the poster boy for Hollywood excess, it was hard to imagine him working after some of his more notable mis-steps, never mind playing the lead in a mega-million special-effects action film. "I’m just not the hero type, clearly, with this laundry list of character defects, mistakes I’ve made — largely public. …" That line, late in Iron Man, is Tony Stark talking about himself, but it might as well be Downey saying it. But Downey’s casting as Tony Stark in Iron Man isn’t just unexpected; it’s also perfect. Just as Bruce Wayne’s costumed activities as Batman are driven by the death of his parents, Tony Stark’s suiting up as Iron Man is driven by the realization that his company’s weapons are being sold to terrorists and evildoers. Tony Stark has made a few bad choices, as has Downey; like Downey had to after the tabloid press was done with him, Tony Stark is going to make a public apology. Unlike Downey, Tony Stark is going to do it flying around, lifting cars and shooting energy beams. ….
The special effects in Iron Man are impressive; it was the last film that effects titan Stan Winston worked on before his death, leading a team of experts who combine models, miniatures and computer effects to bring the Iron Man armor to gleaming life. The twinkle in Downey’s eye, though, as he moves through the film — charming and cool and clever — is far more shiny and polished than his super-suit. If Johnny Depp’s Captain Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean was highly influenced by Keith Richards, Downey’s Tony Stark feels like a blend of James Bond and Dean Martin, managing to be both iconic and ironic. The script and supporting cast in Iron Man are strong, sure; actually, Iron Man‘s four lead actors — Downey, Jeff Bridges, Gwynneth Paltrow and Terrence Howard — have seven Oscar nominations between them. It pains me to say it, though, but watching Iron Man on DVD, it’s fairly obvious that if you didn’t have Downey, you wouldn’t have much of a movie, even with all the effects and capable supporting cast and the obvious skill Favreau brings to the table as a director.
Iron Man does have Downey, though, and we’re lucky for it. The fact is that Downey makes what could have been an off-the-rack big-budget action film into something actually worth watching. The bare-bones truth is that Iron Man does everything you’d expect a superhero origin story film to do, and not much more: You meet the hero-to-be, watch him come into his own, see him try out his new abilities, see him become a better person through trials and tribulations, all building up to a climactic battle with a more-powerful enemy. The deleted scenes on the DVD actually suggest a longer, darker, richer movie that might not have worked as well on-screen; the version that made it to theaters is streamlined and sleek and speedy, and still satisfying. Iron Man, at heart, is a movie about, and for, men who are still boyish enough to love high-tech toys, but the good news is that Downey gives the film real heart under its shiny, high-tech exterior.