Hard Nut

The summer blockbuster season kicks off with Jon Favreau’s Iron Man, a gutsy adaptation of the Marvel comic superhero that offers a standardised origin story typical of a first instalment in a franchise but one as determined to subtly subvert the genre as it is to provide pyrotechnic popcorn thrills.

The first good thing the director does is cast the 43 year old Robert Downey Jr as his deeply flawed hero, Tony Stark. An egotistical, alcoholic billionaire weapons dealing playboy, we first meet Stark on his way through the Afghan desert having demonstrated a deadly new missile system. His convoy is attacked, his escorts are killed and Stark is captured by a ragtag insurgent army, led by the sinister Raza (Faran Tahir). Half-dead, Stark’s life is saved by the quick intervention of another detainee, Yinsen (Shaun Toub), who implants a magnetic heart in his chest and nurses him back to health. Soon however, his captors make their demands clear – Stark must build them a copy of his new weapon, even as the recovering soon-to-be-superhero is discovering that they are already in possession of a huge arsenal of his guns.

Already established as a mechanical genius, it comes as little surprise when Stark uses the resources available in the cave to instead build a suit of armour and fight his way out of the desert. Returned to America and reunited with his Army friend Rhodes (Terrence Howard) and his loyal assistant Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), Stark calls a press conference where he announces that his company will no longer make weapons and will instead look to develop alternative energy systems. This comes as a shock to his trusted commercial lieutenant Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges), who watches the share price plummet as the media take up the story of Stark’s Damascene conversion from wildcat death-merchant to tree-hugging peacenik. As Stark hides away in his beach-front mansion, developing his flying metal suit, his enemies gather at the gates in row: the US Military, who want him onside, the terrorists, who want his guns and the bald-headed Stane, who wants to continue milking the Stark Industries cash cow.

It’s refreshing to see a hero that isn’t a wide-eyed, somehow-irradiated teenager or a trapeze artist, but a middle-aged borderline personality who creates his own solutions to his problems in the tradition of a Victorian gentleman scientist or a stranded explorer. Downey has the chops to do that, in the same way that Christian Bale can make Batman's troubles seem real but Ben Affleck - just as an example - could not. Downey retains the man behind the CGI mask, skirting the line in the way he does, between actorly gravity and comic madness. He is terrific; literally bullet-proof in the midst of the chaos and when similarly alone in his garage with his spanners and his pet robot. It’s mostly Downey that makes this breakneck adventure a film worth talking about.

While the story of betrayal and revenge is all about introducing the character, there are a couple of deeply satisfying action sequences carefully positioned to deliver adrenal jolts – Stark’s initial escape from the subterranean prison, a breakneck face-off between the airborne Iron Man and a couple of US fighter planes and a final stand against a superior force that sets Downey Jr and Favreau up for an already keenly anticipated sequel. Witty, daringly contemporary and blisteringly realised, Favreau’s action fantasy is a hugely entertaining special effects extravaganza and a welcome addition to the crowded panoply of American superhero movie characters.

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