Robert Downey Jr. is billionaire inventor Tony
Stark, aka the superhero Iron Man. © 2008 Marvel

Iron Man

(Reviewed May 1, 2008, by James Dawson)

I'm not the biggest Robert Downey Jr. fan in the world. Okay, to be honest, I usually can't stand watching Downey do his usual deadpan-hipster fast-talking monotone act. But that cooler-than-thou smugness is perfect for his role as self-absorbed mechanical brainiac Tony Stark, alter-ego of the Marvel Comics superhero Iron Man.

Gwyneth Paltrow also is good here as Stark's hyper-efficient and adoring gal Friday Pepper Potts, who is sweetly endearing and sexy-librarian lovely.

Nearly everything else about the movie, though, is surprisingly flat, often dull and kinda cheesy. Considering that this is the first release from Marvel's own Marvel Studios (distributed by Paramount), you'd think that the powers-that-be would have come up with something more impressive.

"Iron Man" gets off to a great start, with a suit-wearing, drink-holding, debauched-but-dapper Stark being Humvee-chauffeured by American soldiers through Afghanistan. As the world's leading arms manufacturer, he's in the neighborhood to demonstrate a new mountain-leveling missile.

Then the plot kicks in, and the movie goes horribly wrong.

A local warlord ambushes the convoy, kidnaps Stark and demands that Stark construct one of the new missiles for him if he wants to live. Which means imprisoning Downey in a cave full of tools and missile parts.

In other words, the plot is really, really stupid. Not in a tongue-in-cheek, post-modern fashion, or even in a kiddie-story kind of way. It's just dumb.

Granted, the filmmakers were damned if they did and damned if they didn't as far as sticking to the specifics of Iron Man's comic-book origin story. Although the comic-book Iron Man got his start during the Vietnam war instead of the current fiasco in Afghanistan, the main elements are pretty faithful to the 1960s printed version. Basically, the bad guys are so stupid that not only do they throw Stark into a cave full of weapons, they also don't figure out that he's building a super-powerful set of armor. This is despite the fact that they are monitoring his progress in person and on closed-circuit video. Sheesh, these guys give terrorists a bad name.

A new wrinkle that does not appear in the comic-book origin makes things even more illogical. Without spoiling the specifics of that utterly inane surprise, we find out later that the terrorists have no reason whatsoever for keeping Stark alive.

What makes all of this even worse is that, like "Batman Begins," this movie wastes an awful lot of time on set-up. Director Jon Favreau does nothing to make the dull parts interesting. He's even worse at directing later action scenes, in which it's hard to tell (for example) who is throwing which car at whom, and where the combatants are in relation to each other.

Hammy Jeff Bridges is flat-out awful as Stark's trusted friend and overbearing business partner, who is so transparently disingenuous and manipulative that it's impossible to believe a sharp cynic like Stark wouldn't see through him. Terrence Howard is similarly unconvincing as Stark's pal and military-purchasing liaison Lt. Col. Rhodes, who always seems timid and unfocused.

Although the prototype Iron Man outfit is pretty clunky and unimpressive (it's built in a friggin' cave, after all), the later version that Downey puts together in his Batcave-like Malibu mansion workshop is a sleek, Transformers-like wonder. Downey also has a lot of amusing interplay with a couple of robot assistants in that ultra-high-tech lair, which doubles as a huge underground garage for Stark's many sports cars. Comic-book dudes always have such great stuff.

(And just for boomer fanboys: Listen for the melody of the Iron Man theme song from the 1960s "Marvel Superheroes" animated TV series, which a band plays during a swanky party near the beginning of the movie.)

When Downey and/or Paltrow are onscreen, their performances almost make up for the movie's shortcomings. Although "Iron Man" doesn't have nearly the high-class pedigree of the overrated ""Batman Begins," the sequels to both movies should be improvements on what went before, if only because later installments can put both guys in their costumes faster and get to the good stuff right away.

In fact, the last line of dialog in "Iron Man" is so good that it's one of the best moments in the movie, and instantly makes you want to see what happens next. Stick around until the end credits finish for a bonus scene.

Also, watch for Marvel Comics founding father Stan Lee, who makes yet another onscreen cameo—one of his best yet!

Back Row Reviews Grade: C

To see my reviews of the other
Iron Man movies, use the links below:

"Iron Man 2" (2008)
"Iron Man 3" (2012)