When compared to such high-concept comic-book heroes as Superman, Thor, or Matter-Eater Lad (who has the power to, um, eat things), a guy who just wears a tricked-out suit of armor doesn't exactly set the imagination soaring. That said, there's always been a basic Sharper Image geekiness to the character of Iron Man (one of his earliest appearances had him crowing about the addition of a transistor radio antenna to his supersuit) that sets him apart and makes him uniquely relatable. The megabucks cinematic adaptation is pleasant enough, but it doesn't live up to the promise of its almost obscenely qualified and willing cast.
Like most origin stories, director John Favreau's film spends a lot of time before its superhero gets fully, recognizably superheroey, concentrating instead on the events that lead the title character—in this case boozy playboy weapons manufacturer Tony Stark—to begin fighting crime. While the long pauses between explosions might start the kids fidgeting in their seats, the buildup actually proves to be the most engaging part of the film, thanks to some unusually snappy patter, brief but vital characterizations by the likes of Terrence Howard and Gwyneth Paltrow, and the toweringly charming central performance of Robert Downey Jr., whose improv rhythms and personal history combine to give his character's redemption unexpected weight. Good as he is, Downey is matched, and possibly surpassed, by Jeff Bridges's evil industrialist/father figure. Sporting a Cossack beard and an alarmingly un-Lebowski chrome dome, Bridges doesn't ditch his usual surfer demeanor, using it instead to mask a growing cutthroat malevolence. Whenever the two square off, the thing soars.
Unfortunately, the action scenes lack the fizz of the character moments, blurring together, as so many modern action flicks do, into a bunch of impressively rendered special effects zooming around and punching things. Still, there's enough good stuff here to place this in the upper tier of movies about guys in long underwear. When the inevitable extended DVD comes out, here's hoping for less CGI clanking and more downtime.