I went to see the movie with Matt Seitz, and as we attempted to wipe the smiles off our faces afterwards, he made an observation that he repeats in the comments to Ryland Walker Knight's review at The House Next Door:
the film inspired a reaction similar to the one I had after seeing "Casino Royale," which took James Bond seriously as a person and surrounded him with other psychologically credible characters and created a central love story that was not even remotely a joke, and it was one of the biggest hits of the series entire then-44 year run; it made me wonder what took them so long. Same thing here: "Iron Man" delivers the requisite rock'-em, sock-'em robots action (much more thrillingly and coherently than "Transformers," which suffered from Michael Bay's characteristically sloppy-yet-monotonously monumental filmmaking) but the parts that are really compelling, at times thrilling, are the little grace notes and moments of character interplay.And that's really the key to what makes "Iron Man" work. It has all the superhero movie trappings, but it takes the human emotions within it seriously even as it manages to have a wicked sense of humor.
Other than Christopher Reeve as Superman, has there ever been a better match of superhero with actor than Downey Jr. as Tony Stark? Downey Jr. was a prodigy from an early age who let his addictions take over his life; Stark's a prodigy who enjoys the celebrity life a little too much. (In the late '70s/early '80s, the Iron Man comics even acknowledged that Stark was an alcoholic, and even did a years-long storyline where he was too drunk to wear the armor.) What's more, there's a joy that Downey brings to almost every performance -- even in darker movies like "Two Girls and a Guy" -- that fits perfectly with Stark, a man so smart and so rich that he can have and do anything he wants.
From the very first scene in the Humvee, where Stark manages to be both intimidating and ingratiating, obnoxious and charming at the same time, the performance is an amalgamation of the best of Downey Jr.'s fast-talking hustler characters, but with a difference: Downey's Stark isn't talking so quickly because he needs to trick anyone, but because his mouth is always straining to keep up with his brilliant mind. While Downey spars well with Gwyneth Paltrow and Terence Howard in a '30s screwball comedy way, some of the movie's best scenes feature him working solo, bickering with the computers and other gadgets in his home. It's a measure of Downey that he can get such big laughs playing off of machines, but also telling of Stark that he has a tendency to treat machines as if they were people. (His bickering with Jarvis, the artificial intelligence that runs both his home and the Iron Man suit, was like "Knight Rider" if "Knight Rider" was made by people with talent.) Director Jon Favreau (who, in his role as Stark's bodyguard Happy Hogan, seems to have slimmed back down to his "Swingers" fighting weight) understands how to exploit Downey's comic gifts in a way that doesn't camp up the story.
Other than relocating from Vietnam to Afghanistan, the movie is a very faithful retelling of the origin story from the comic books, with Shaun Toub giving Stark (and the movie) a moral center as the suicidal Yinsen. By the time I started reading Iron Man comics, Tony had already had the surgery to remove the shrapnel from his heart, and while it made sense from a plausbility standpoint -- given the advances in medical technology, it was silly for Tony not to try to have the stuff removed -- I understand why the really old-school fans talk about missing the element of Tony needing the armor to survive. In the movie, he only needs the mini-arc reactor (which is a gorgeous visual), but the sequence where he has to stagger through the workshop in search of the spare that Pepper saved for him reminded me of the stories the old-schoolers used to describe of Tony, the armor out of power, having to crawl towards a wall socket in order to survive.
Because this is an origin story, and because Favreau and company no doubt understood that Downey was going to turn out to be the selling point, there's a minimum of action in the movie -- essentially, the escape from the caves, the flight training sequence, the quick jaunt to liberate the village, and then the battle with Stane as Iron Monger -- but those scenes are exciting enough (and coherently shot enough) to satisfy, especially since Downey's performance is so much fun even in a relatively mundane setting like the black tie reception.
Favreau has said he imagines this as the first of a trilogy, and based on the early box office returns, I can't imagine we won't get at least two sequels. The post-credits scene sets us up for what the next story might be -- and brings the Ultimate Nick Fury character full-circle with its casting -- but I almost hope they don't go in that direction. An Avengers movie might be cool, but if there's one thing that movies like "Batman Forever" and "Spider-Man 3" have taught us, it's that less is more with the number of characters in a comic book movie. Downey's so good that I don't want him having to share time with whoever's playing Captain America, Thor, etc. I suppose the problem of doing another solo Iron Man project is that the comic book doesn't provide many villains who would translate well to the movies (it's hard to do The Mandarin without making him seem racist, for instance), but I think that can be dealt with when the time comes.
What did everybody else think?