Is there any actor alive who takes more obvious delight in his line readings than Robert Downey Jr.? He is precise yet baroque, contemplating each word with casual bemusement as it leaves his mouth. Though he is one of modern cinema's fastest talkers, it's not because he's in a hurry to tell us anything. Rather, he seems to feel that once a remark has passed through his mind, it's already happened; uttering it aloud is almost an afterthought. It's a form of delivery at once self-deprecating and self-absorbed: Are his thoughts unworthy of being shared? Or are we just unworthy to hear them?
Casting him as Tony Stark, the titular hero of Iron Man (which opens on over 2,000 screens tonight) was a stroke of conceptual genius by director Jon Favreau, who was aiming for a Johnny-Depp-in-Pirates-of-the-Caribbean-style anti-hero and hit the mark exactly. Stark, a billionaire playboy arms manufacturer with a villainous goatee, is, like Downey himself, an improbable hero, and all the more appealing for it. Even before he dons his metal suit he’s encased in a more intimate armor: Call him Irony Man.
When first we meet Stark, he’s in Afghanistan demonstrating his company’s latest high-tech missile system, the Jericho, to Army officials. “They say the best weapon is one you never have to fire,” he explains with a showman’s bravado. “I prefer the weapon you only need to fire once. That’s how Dad did it. That’s how America does it. And it’s worked out pretty well so far.” He’s Adnan Khashoggi by way of P.T. Barnum.
The missile showcase is a success, but it attracts unintended customers: A local warlord attacks the military convoy, imprisons Stark in one of those Central Asian caves we hear so much about, and demands he build him his very own Jericho. (The story is a fairly loyal updating of the 1963 comic-book origin, in which the hero-to-be was captured by Vietnamese.) Stark, of course, builds himself a suit of hulking, mechanized armor instead, and busts his way out like the Tin Woodman with a case of ’roid rage.
Back stateside, Stark has second thoughts about the family business and declares that he doesn’t want to make weapons anymore--an announcement that is not well received by his business partner, Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges, sporting the bald pate and bushy beard of a biker or professional arm wrestler). As Stane plots jealously against him, Stark begins refining his original armor from something resembling an ambulatory toaster toward a high-end men’s razor, all golden gleam and hot-rod red.
Soon it’s time for a quick jaunt back to Afghanistan to deal with some company hardware that’s fallen into the hands of his erstwhile captor, as Iron Man assumes his role as the world’s most effective counter-proliferation activist. It’s a role carefully calibrated to appeal equally to political doves (blowback really is a bitch) and hawks (did you see him take out that tank?). But while there’s something a bit dubious about staging this fantasy of American exceptionalism against a backdrop of Afghan refugees, the movie doesn’t linger on it. (The ethnic, ideological, and religious leanings of the bad guys are, of course, kept scrupulously vague.)
The typical tropes of the birth-of-a-superhero genre are rolled out in due course: the test-driving of new powers; the friendly misunderstanding with law enforcement (here represented by two F-22s); the love interest who must not be loved (Gwyneth Paltrow, surprisingly endearing as super-assistant “Pepper” Potts, a throwbacky role whose chief consolation is that her nickname isn’t “Honey”); the final, somewhat tedious showdown with a superbaddie wielding Stark’s own technology against him.
But even as Iron Man fulfills its genre obligations, it transcends them, thanks to lively direction by Favreau and, especially, the tour de force performance by Downey, who cements the comeback he’s been building in such films as Zodiac, A Scanner Darkly, and (especially) as the bumbling hero of the criminally neglected Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. The rest of the cast, which also features an underutilized Terrence Howard and the very good Shaun Toub (both late of Crash), is uniformly strong. But it’s Downey’s vibe--the mordant wit, the boyish enthusiasm, the careful balance of self-love and self-loathing--that gives the film its sharp, comic sensibility and elevates it near the top of what was beginning to seem an exhausted genre. Downey has always been a ferocious talent (it’s easy to forget that he was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar in his twenties for Chaplin), but his professional highs have been too long derailed by his recreational ones. Here’s hoping he's turned the corner for good and, when next he finds himself soaring, it’s because he’s once again wearing the armor of red and gold.
Christopher Orr is a senior editor at The New Republic.