"Let's face it," says Tony Stark when his assistant walks in while he's half in and half out of his Iron Man armour, "this is not the worst thing you've caught me doing." This should tell you everything you need to know about Iron Man: it's a fun, grown-up superhero movie.
I use the word "grown-up" advisedly. Tony Stark, played by Robert Downey Jr., is a wealthy genius who exists in a world of comic book science. The film's plot, such as it is, would fit on the back of an envelope and contains precisely no surprising twists. I watched it in a cinema surrounded by six-year-olds.
Nonetheless the screenplay treads a line between kitsch and cool that's seldom seen outside of a Bond movie. Kids will think the effects are cool (they are), and comic book fans will get a buzz from the in-jokes (there are many), but this is a mainstream film aimed squarely at an adult audience who wouldn't be seen dead holding a comic. It's a fun, violent, sexy, entirely lightweight piece of entertainment. Done well.
The premise of the story is that Tony Stark is a Howard Hughes-style playboy industrialist, an engineering genius whose company makes billions selling arms to the US government. Stark gets a shocking wake-up call while touring Afghanistan when he's captured by terrorists using his own weaponry. Worse, inoperable shrapnel lodged near his heart requires a powerful electromagnet simply to keep him alive. In the course of his escape he innovates both an amazingly compact power source and a hydraulic suit of bullet-proof armour (his captors somehow failing to notice that he's not building them a large missile). Returning to the US he vows to turn his company's resources to more peaceful goals, and refines his high-tech "Iron Man" gadgetry.
If this isn't sounding terribly grown-up, let alone plausible, then it's to the film's credit that it takes this origin story, replete with leaps of faith and logic, and makes it work. The script knows what the audience's biggest stumbling blocks will be and it focuses its resources on selling these: Stark's mechanical genius, his repeated setbacks, his painful first attempts to fly. The rest it skips lightly over.
It's a textbook guide to suspending disbelief, and the film has a number of other tricks up its sleeve. The Afghan terrorists are familiar from images in countless news reports and they ground the outlandish aspects of Stark's plight. Stark's dissolute lifestyle makes him an unlikely champion, and a reluctant hero is, strangely, a more believable one. His transformation into a kind of idealist is couched not in terms of helping the helpless but atoning for his company's crimes, rooting him in a political and international landscape far removed from the usual slew of bank robbers and superpowered megalomaniacs.
Robert Downey Jr. deserves a great deal of the credit for the film's success. His performance attains a kind of sleazy likeability that has you rooting for Stark to turn his life around even as you're quite enjoying his incorrigibility. He's likeable even when selling weapons of mass destruction. When he starts to channel his energies into redemption he's positively charming. Downey's deadpan delivery and unfazed reaction to the most ridiculous situations—"Yeah, I can fly," he notes, as if checking off a shopping list—make for an appealing hero.
His charisma is important since, even for an origin story, the film devotes a good long while to Stark gradually tinkering with his suit. Downey Jr. apparently ad-libbed much of the script, and thanks to his constant, Popeye-like banter with his lab's hapless robots and his virtual butler Jarvis (Paul Bettany in a thankless role) we're swept up in his freewheeling creativity.
Unlike many superheroes, Stark is unusual in that he doesn't start out as an outsider but as a successful, popular businessman; there's no trace of Peter Parker's wallflower persona here. He also doesn't have any superpowers, being blessed with a kind of creative genius that is in itself nearly a superpower and which enables his transformation into a heroic figure.
It's interesting to compare Tony Stark with Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) in Batman Begins (2005), generally considered the high-water mark for superhero films to date. Both films are origin stories which devote far more time to the man behind the mask than to his heroics. Both Stark and Wayne are millionaire playboys who, with no recourse to special abilities, equip themselves to fight injustice. Batman Begins even emphasises Wayne Enterprises' military assets as a source for Batman's body armour and gadgetry, but this was always Iron Man's thing: Stark is the creative force behind his company's technology while Wayne merely appropriates his.
For all the similarities Batman Begins is grimmer by far. There's a scene towards the end of that film in which Rachel Dawes, Katie Holmes's character, says that Bruce Wayne no longer exists; that it's Batman who is real, and Wayne who is just a disguise. He's a monomaniac whose adult life has been focused entirely on his quest for justice, his playboy persona just another mask. Stark, meanwhile, is every bit the high-rolling socialite that Wayne pretends to be. His quest for redemption may lend him some semblance of depth, but he's more joyrider than prowler. Notably, Wayne asks of his technology, "Does it come in black?" while for Stark it can only be "hot-rod red." The films take their lead from the men: Batman Begins is a gritty gangster thriller; Iron Man is a boy's own tale of spies and war.
Indeed, super-spy James Bond is a good template for the kind of gambling, hard-drinking womaniser Stark represents, and the film is as unreconstructed as any Bond movie in its depiction of women. Serious female journalists are apparently queuing up to fall into his bed after a moment's banter. The bizarrely named "Pepper" Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), Stark's assistant, even has a Moneypenny-like crush on her boss. There's a real criticism of the film's gender roles lurking here. The film is so endearing that I feel an unworthy urge to defend it, but the fact remains that the lack of female empowerment is quite striking. The film's only saving grace in this department is that Pepper has no illusions about her boss and proves extremely capable, but only within the confines of a very hackneyed role.
Likewise the film's terrorists are faceless Arabs who, for all Tony Stark's epiphany about the ethics of warfare, are gunned down without remorse. Even the entirely unsurprising revelation that Stark's business partner, the equally bizarrely named Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges), is the true villain doesn't quite make-up for this one-dimensionality. The only black character is Terence Howard in a likeable but unremarkable role as Stark's long-suffering best friend Jim Rhodes. A lot of these problems seem to be rooted in the original comic story. Back in 1963 when Iron Man was created, the baddies were communists in Vietnam and Tony Stark had a pretty secretary named Virginia "Pepper" Potts. In the 1960s these elements were, if not acceptable, then at least commonplace. Transplanted to the modern day the same characters and attitudes seem somewhat prehistoric.
If you can put aside its faults, however, the film has a lot to offer. Never as grim as Batman, as worthy as Superman, as soapy as Spider-Man, or as disastrously superficial as Fantastic Four, this is a solid, astutely judged piece of entertainment that hits exactly the right tone. The effects are quietly impressive. The Iron Man armour is a convincingly realised bit of technology and the weathered CGI blends nearly seamlessly with the on-set props. The action scenes work best when exploiting the film's unusual political context, pitting the title character against other military hardware such as fighter planes or tanks. The inevitable armour-on–armour battle at the film's climax works less well simply because it reduces both hero and villain to generic special effects. Superhero films often suffer when their title character suits up, because the lead actor is immediately reduced to doing voice-over work. (Just count the times Spider-Man loses his mask in Sam Raimi's series of films). Iron Man is ingeniously able to get around this problem by treating the mask as a cockpit, allowing us to view Robert Downey Jr.'s face lit by heads-up displays. This is a very neat way to retain the audience's emotional connection.
As the film ends we're firmly on the road to another superhero status quo. The script can't resist a quick poke at the original comics setup, in which Iron Man is officially supposed to be Stark's bodyguard, but there's no real conclusion here. The sequel has already been announced. There's even a post-credits cameo from Samuel L. Jackson (unbilled) as Marvel Comics' superspy Nick Fury, setting up an adaptation of Marvel's Avengers comic down the line. Everywhere the smell of franchise is in the air.
So am I still claiming that Iron Man is grown-up? Not really. In some ways it's outdated, adolescent wish fulfillment, and Tony Stark himself is a sexist dinosaur rescued mainly by Downey Jr.'s performance. The storyline is hardly more complex than a Saturday morning cartoon. It's not in any sense a mature film.
But neither is it puerile. The film is as well crafted as anything to come out of Tony Stark's workshop. The dialogue is often witty, the characterisation deft and charming, and the sensibility of a superhero comic is melded with a political landscape that encompasses military arms sales and terrorism. It's unchallenging entertainment with a twinkle in its eye, its heart in the right place, and it comes in hot-rod red.
Let's face it, this is not the worst thing you've been caught watching.
Iain Clark lives in the North of England with his wife and two cats, who feed him most of his best ideas.