Most superhero movies look to cast an actor who can vanish inside the suit and the persona of a classic comic book character while getting drowned out by a 100 million dollars worth of special effects. Robert Downey Jr. doesn’t vanish inside the suit, he owns the suit and everything around it, pulling off a performance in Iron Man that has more energy than any of the movie’s many action scenes or special effects.
But Iron Man doesn’t stop with a charismatic performance from its main star, it runs on three great performances, fueled by the screen presences and pitch perfect acting of Downey, Paltrow and Bridges, and the movie’s energy is powered by their quirky meaning-laden interactions. Director Jon Favreau tops it all off by planting them in a movie that has its own nervous energy where things seem to constantly be on the verge of going wrong, only to be salvaged at the last minute.
Tony Stark’s blatant self-confidence is challenged by disaster after disaster as he attempts to take charge of Stark Industries and clean up his own messes in a superpowered suit, which time after time fails him or comes off as inadequate to the task. With a hole inside his chest, Stark goes off on mission after mission equipped not with the stoic heroism of conventional superheroes, but with a mixture of thrill seeking overconfidence and the inner demons of his own guilt leading him into situations he isn’t remotely ready for. But audiences don’t need to cheer on Robert Downey Jr as Tony Stark or root for him, he does all his own cheerleading too.
If Downey was an unconventional choice to play Stark that paid off beautifully, Jeff Bridges was at least as unconventional of a choice to play villain Obadiah Stone. Bald, bearded, bulking; Obadiah is a long way from the Dude, equally at home being casually amiable and casually menacing, he’s the believable Ballmeresque CEO you see grinning on the covers of magazines and stabbing everyone in the back in the boardroom. Along with Terrence Howard’s straight man Colonel, Gwyneth Paltrow as Pepper Potts completes Stark’s triad of human connections, taking a seemingly thankless sidekick role and investing it with human vulnerability, empathy and humor to make her Stark’s true other half.
Most of Iron Man’s key action scenes can already be seen in the trailer, a common failing of many action movies, but unlike those movies, Iron Man is invested in a lot more than its action scenes. The real movie is not in the fights or the special effects, it’s in the complete package tied together by the three main characters and held up heroically by Downey. It’s in that restless coolness that he brings to the table that makes watching Iron Man an adventure, the way great action movies are meant to be. It’s in that sense of daring unpredictability that the best action movies from Indiana Jones to James Bond have unleashed on audiences and Iron Man rides that unpredictability right down to its final moment, a complete shocker and yet absolutely in line with every single thing Tony Stark has done throughout the movie.
Where so many comic book movies get it wrong, Iron Man gets it right, going beyond the suit to the man. Any 200 million dollar summer blockbuster can toss special effects at the screen but no amount of money can buy the energy and the drive that connects Iron Man back to the great blockbusters of the 80’s. With Iron Man Jon Favreau demonstrates that he is on track to be the rightful successor to Steven Spielberg, and Robert Downey Jr comes back in a big way. Iron Man is more than just a great comic book movie, it’s a great movie. Period.