SUMMER IS FINALLY here, arriving with a bang in the guise of Iron Man. The latest hero from Marvel comics to get the big screen treatment, Iron Man is brought to life with vigor by the newly rehabbed Robert Downey Jr.
With the possible exception of Christian Bale in Batman Begins (and this summer's The Dark Knight), I can't think of a better actor to don a comic-inspired costume. The subtlety Downey brings to the role, and his interplay with costars Jeff Bridges (Obadiah Stane), Gwyneth Paltrow (Pepper Potts), and Terrence Howard (Jim Rhodes), are fantastic.
Downey portrays Tony Stark, a playboy billionaire arms dealer. His father worked on the Manhattan Project and his company, Stark Enterprises, arms the Pentagon. Stark couldn't be prouder of the work he does: When an obnoxious reporter criticizes him for being a merchant of death, he gives as good as he gets, noting that whoever has the biggest stick dictates the terms of peace. A genius at weapons development, Downey's Stark is clearly someone who takes great pride in his country--and himself.
That all changes when, in the midst of a missile demonstration in the mountains of Afghanistan, Stark is captured by terrorists. Director Jon Favreau goes to great lengths to portray them as an odd international band--one of the terrorists speaks Hungarian, for example--but they're a clear stand-in for al Qaeda and the Taliban. Determined to make Stark build a weapons system capable of leveling an entire city, the terrorists treat him roughly--submerging his head in water, slapping him around--but Stark resists. Until, that is, he discovers that the terrorists already have their hands on some of Stark Enterprise's finest hardware.
Enraged, he sets to work, creating not a missile phalanx but a suit of armor. Powered by an electromagnetic pacemaker, Stark emerges from his prison-cave determined to right the wrongs his company has committed. (This pacemaker is a fine example of comic-book medicine: Implanted in Stark's chest, it somehow keeps his heart pumping while using magnets to repel shrapnel from its valves.) Having seen American troops killed by weapons he designed to protect them, Stark understands the stakes: Nothing less than total annihilation will suffice. A flamethrower and a handy missile do the trick, destroying the terrorist forces--and, of course, relieving them of their weapons.
After being rescued by the military, Stark heads home and vows to the press he will stop manufacturing weapons. Meanwhile, he embarks on his most lethal project yet: an advanced version of the suit, built in his prison-cave, that saved his life. When he discovers that terrorist group was not totally wiped out the first time around--and has somehow gained control of the missile he refused to build for them--Iron Man is unleashed in all his glory. Few scenes in recent memory give off the visceral glee of Stark, as Iron Man, ripping through the terrorist forces like tissue paper. It's virtually cathartic, and the audience buzzed with energy as Iron Man mopped up the mess his corrupt partner, Obadiah Stane, had made of things.
Iron Man is the American id unleashed. Before his encounter with terrorists, Stark lived a life of hedonism as only a billionaire can, taking his private jet (complete with stripper pole and compliant flight attendants) to Las Vegas, zipping around Malibu in his $120,000 Audi R8, and drinking the finest scotch. After his own personal 9/11 he reacts as most Americans wish they could have reacted on 9/12: By flying to the Middle East and personally stomping out a vicious terrorist cell that had been wreaking havoc on a civilian population.
This is not a "conservative" movie, per se, but it is the film equivalent of a Rorschach test. If you go into Iron Man seeking right-wing imagery, you'll find it: Tony Stark is a patriot, pro-military, and likes unilateral intervention. If you go into Iron Man looking for left-wing imagery, you'll find that, too: The true villain here is Stane, representing an out-of-control military-industrial complex. Still, it's refreshing to go to the multiplex and find a universe where terrorists are despicable and Americans are heroic.
Robert Downey Jr.'s performance is great, and he has a suitable foil in Jeff Bridges who, with bald head and bushy beard, looks like he jumped off the pages of a comic book. Gwyneth Paltrow is also impressive as Stark's secretary/confidant; her Potts is mousy but in control, and Paltrow does not shrink on the screen in the presence of the great actors who surround her. The same cannot be said of Terrence Howard, who is regularly outshined by his costars--a military liaison with Stark Industries, Howard's Rhodes is a terrible straight man to Stark's cut-up in the film's earlier sequences. Director Jon Favreau has a skilled eye for motion: When Iron Man is chased by a pair of F-22s, it's the most exhilarating terrestrial flight sequence in film since Top Gun.
Sonny Bunch is assistant editor at THE WEEKLY STANDARD and blogs at Doublethink Online.