When I first heard Jon Favreau would be helming what will surely be a trilogy of Iron Man movies, I was surprised. Best known as the writer of Vince Vaughn vehicle Swingers, and the director of Will Ferrell’s Elf, he seemed like an unusual choice. Iron Man is the first self-financed film released by Marvel Studios, the newly founded movie division of Marvel Comics. They took a bit of a gamble and got a fresh, funny, and relatively intelligent adaptation of one of their less celebrated characters. Iron Man shines in places that other comic book movies fail. Robert Downey Jr. is almost more fun when he’s out of the armor, playing billionaire arms manufacturer Tony Stark. His life is like an episode of Entourage, and is just as much fun to watch.
Like Favreau, Robert Downey Jr. was another risky choice, an actor whose legal troubles made him an unusual choice for a hero. He comes through in spades, however, and makes the most of his role, an ignorant playboy who uses his riches to take some responsibility.
The rest of the cast is just as well chosen. Gwyneth Paltrow is perfect as Stark’s underappreciated assistant. She and Downey have great chemistry, but their relationship doesn’t devolve into a cliché, tacked-on movie romance. The biggest surprise is Jeff Bridges. Looking very unlike The Dude from Big Lebowski with his shiny bald head and goatee, he brings his formidable acting chops to what could have been just another forgettable villain. Terrence Howard, from Crash and Hustle and Flow, is there as well, but he hardly has enough screen time to compete for our attention with men in big metal robot suits.
The film also features some odd cameos, including Marvel Comics founder Stan Lee impersonating Hugh Heffner. Ghostface Killah, apparently a long time Iron Man fan, makes an appearance. The third cameo is a big surprise hidden after the credits, and I won’t spoil it for you.
The best thing about Iron Man is the worst thing in most comic movies, the dialogue. The script is very strong, penned by script doctors who last worked on the incredible Children of Men. There are some truly cornball moments, but for the most part it keeps Stark engaged in amusing banter with everyone around him, including his robotic lab assistants. The comic timing in the movie is equally strong and delivers some big laughs when you least expect it.
Surprisingly, the film is relatively short on action. There are three big action set pieces in the film. Each one is very fun, but the film really could have lost a scene or two of dialogue for another opportunity for Iron Man to bust some heads.
However, this doesn’t mean the movie is short on special effects. For me, effects are never a draw, and they usually stick out like a sore thumb, but Iron Man features what I can safely call the best computer animation I have ever seen. Nothing looks off and distracts the eye; it all blends together amazingly well. Watching Iron Man outmaneuver fighter jets is the best superhero movie moment since Tobey Maguire figured out how to swing from a web.
Iron Man may avoid most of the pitfalls that trip up other comic book movies, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t switch off your brain before you buy your ticket. It’s a big, dumb, rollicking, popcorn-selling powerhouse of a summer movie, and it knows it. The script tries to compensate with social commentary on the arms industry, but can’t manage to do it without eliciting a groan or getting a little melodramatic. When it plays to its strengths, it takes off, but when it tries to reach, it stays grounded. Like most summer flicks, see it if you like it when things explode.