WARNING: Mild spoilers contained herein.
First things first: Comic-fans, hardcore nerds, geeks and fans and devotees of all stripes, listen carefully: Jarvis. Ten Rings. S.H.I.E.L.D. You talked. Somebody listened. Get your asses to the theatre, NOW. And for fuck's sake, STAY THROUGH THE CREDITS. Just trust me.
The recent spate of superhero movies have found much of their success by mining concept of the hero as downtrodden-outsider, i.e. "Spider-Man" or "X-Men." Fine franchises all, but a little of that goes a long way in movie after movie. A big part of what makes "Iron Man" feel so fresh (and it does, make no mistake about it) is that, despite his obligatory "costume" and semi-secret identity, leading man Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) belongs to a different era of heroes: The much older tradition of jack-of-all-trades genius/adventurers like Doc Savage. And while I've certainly no problem with the "protecting those who fear them" set, variety IS the spice of life.
Whereas most superheroes, by design, are average-or-lower fellows who spring to colorful life as their alter-egos, Stark enters the movie as just about the most interesting guy alive: A billionaire engineering-genius/weapons-magnate who collects/builds classic cars, invents world-changing inventions for kicks and tears through women, parties and booze like a one-man Rat Pack: The interior of his private jet morphs into a private strip-club at his command, complete with flight-attendants who double as dancers. And yet, while smug and self-satisfied to a fault, he has a certain sincerity: He genuinely believes in his weapons as forces to END wars and PROTECT the American soldiers who use them.
It's a balancing act with precious little time to set-up, but what you've heard about Downey knocking it out of the park are BEYOND true: His Tony Stark is the coolest man on the planet before he even THINKS about becoming Iron Man - in an origin story that hews fairly close to the originals comics save for swapping-out then-topical Vietnam for now-topical Afghanistan, where Stark goes to show off a new super-missile for a grateful U.S. Army. A Terrorist ambush - using Stark Brand explosives - leaves him with a heart full of lethal shrapnel, but a quick-fix battery-powered life support device saves him: The Terrorists (obviously meant to suggest Al Qaeda but who's name and who's Ghengis Khan-obsessed leader are there to get attentive fans giggling with anticipation of "Iron Man 2,") want him alive to turn all the Stark Industries weaponry they've managed to aquire (and, he learns, USE on innocent victims) into something more substantial. Instead, he builds himself a suit of weaponry-loaded mechanical armor and blasts his way to freedom.
In the comics, Stark then dedicated himself to fighting the Red Menace in his newly-upgraded armor as Iron Man. Since thats obviously not going to work here, and since the film handily demonstrates (in a pair of action sequences that'll be running on Blu-Ray Player demo-loops at Best Buy into the next CENTURY) that Al Qaeda cave-dwellers aren't much of a match for a walking/flying human tank, the modern Iron Man has a spiffy new goal to go along with the new special effects: Infuriated that the weapons he intended to be used for good are in the hands of warmongers and terrorists, he shuts down the munitions plants and aims to take the stray arms out of evil's grasp by force; a new life-direction that confounds his Pentagon liason buddy Jim Rhodes (Terrence Howard) and Moneypenny-esque assistant Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) and infuriates his scheming corporate "ally" Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges.) It also garners the attention of Agent Colson (Clarke Gregg) a representative of a government agency with a rather unwieldy name who's initials will be partly responsible for the uncontrollable cheering you'll be hearing from the fan-clusters. Hm...
Yeah. It's innevitable that most reviews you'll be reading for this on the web are going to be pretty deeply drowned-out by the fan-ecstasy over what appears to be the very real setup for several HUGE down-the-pike dream projects; but non-fans should NOT let that scare them away. These are details for the in-the-know, not the meat of the subject. The film itself is a smart and complex animal, a "grownup" superhero movie in every sense of the word. In a way, it plays out as less of an action film (truth be told, there are really only THREE major "battle" scenes) and closer to the sort of deliberately-paced scifi-augmented techno-thriller one expects from, say, Michael Crichton: Comforted by the awesomeness of it's action bookends, the crucial middle act concentrates on universe-building and character-fleshing; dwelling in welcome detail on the methods with which Stark assembles and tests the Iron Man technology and on he and Pepper's gradual realization of something resembling mutual-affection.
This is a movie that's built of self-assuredness. Downey plays Stark as a guy who's every virtue AND flaw can be attributed to a confidence in his abilities, and it bleeds over into the rest of the film: It never seems to be straining to fit in extra action scenes, it knows the ones it has are dynamite. Even most of it's fanboy references are handled the same way: Winking, offhand nods to followups that the film seems QUITE sure are going to happen.
It's this confidence of vision that seemingly enables the film to overcome an impossible hurdle: Making a fun summer action blockbuster grounded heavily in War on Terror happenings. The film wears what political bent it has (Terrorism: bad, America: good, War: depends on the wager) on it's sleeve but pitches for a wider audience: A truly spectacular sequence where Iron Man descends from the sky and rescues an Afghan village from terrorist pillagers could be read equally-well as a neocon fantasy of "peace through superior firepower" or a liberal "proper-use of influence abroad" parable. Bottom line, I don't care WHAT your politics are - seeing hordes of Al Qaeda types getting smacked around like ragdolls by a power-armored supehero ought to be something we can all get behind.
If this is the movie that "opens" the Summer Season, it's setting a REALLY high bar in terms of overall satisfaction. Fans are getting a movie that's eager to please, and non-fans can look forward to a genre effort that stands comfortably next to "Batman Begins" and "Spider-Man" in the best-of-the-best.
FINAL RATING: 9/10
Oh, and once again: Seriously, STAY THROUGH THE CREDITS. You won't be sorry.