After Tobey Maguire's gawky boyishness and Christian Bale's glower, the ''offbeat'' casting of comic-book films is now the new normal. (The trend really started back in 1989, when Tim Burton turned a saucer-eyed noodge like Michael Keaton into Batman.) Yet it's still bracing to see Robert Downey Jr. redefine what it takes to be a superhero in Iron Man. As Tony Stark, a high-living celebrity weapons magnate who is wounded on a trek through Afghanistan, only to transform himself into a hulking mechanical rocket man, Downey doesn't dial down his eager narcissistic wit. Wearing a goatee right out of the beatnik '50s, he's fast and frictionless, as airlessly ironic as a talk-show host who's been shoved onto the air at 3 a.m. and left to his own what-the-hell devices. The key to Downey's mocking, crumpled charm is that no matter whom he's talking to, he's really just nattering to himself. When he climbs into his Iron Man machine suit, with its whirring, clicking limbs and plated chest, flamethrower arms, and mask of a medieval knight, he doesn't disappear behind the tin-can walls of that chunky, atomic-age jet-pack robot. He's still there, a deftly fragile motormouth a damaged soul who needs armor to fully become himself.
Just about every classic comic-book superhero is, at heart, a Jekyll-and-Hyde, divided between ineffectuality and power. Too often, however, the movies adapted from comic books come with their own split personalities. There's the flat, prosaic story, with all that overbright franchise lighting and actors like Tobey Maguire doing their best to charm us in thinly scripted regular-guy roles. And then there are the special-effects parts, when suddenly we're asked to believe that a man can fly, or shimmy up walls, or dissolve into particles, even as we remain naggingly aware that we're watching a digital extravaganza that has little to do with mopey nice-guy acting.
The fun of Iron Man, a Marvel adaptation in which a routine arc has been burnished with great elegance and skill, is the way that it heals the split, soldering the two halves of its hero into a single organically driven figure. On that fateful Afghan jaunt, Downey's Stark is wounded by one of his own bombs, then kidnapped and taken to an insurgent lair, where a magnetized gizmo is surgically implanted in his chest, all to keep the bits of shrapnel from heading toward his heart. To fool his captors, he pretends to construct the cluster bomb they demand, but instead he builds himself a mechanical alter ego and flies to freedom. Back at his hillside mansion (one of many clever details it's out of vintage Bond), Stark then erects a new, improved version, with a two-toned shell and computerized mask. His desire? To destroy the weapons that he once created. He becomes a rock-'em sock-'em robot for peace.
The director, Jon Favreau, doesn't exactly have a big sci-fi track record he wrote and starred in Swingers, and also directed Elf but he draws on his humanistic gifts to make Iron Man"] a compellingly down-to-earth superhero fantasy. The effects sequences, in which Iron Man zips through the air like a toaster that's been shot out of a cannon, are ingenious enough to never let us forget that this gold-titanium hulk has been built, from the ground up. (When he takes off, you feel the quivering smoky thrust of his engines.) The story line is, to put it mildly, familiar, with all the episode-one bona fides ticking into place. Yet Favreau's direction never feels rote, even during the sky-zipping, metal-smashing action scenes, and the casting is aces. Jeff Bridges, as Stark's corporate partner, looks as scary as a cult leader in his shaved head and bushy beard, but he underacts, benignly; Bridges uses that wry, trust-me voice to create a timely portrait of stylish power. And Gwyneth Paltrow, as Pepper Potts, Stark's selfless girl Friday, manages the neat trick of taking a character who's a prefeminist throwback and playing her with a liberated twinkle. When Pepper replaces Stark's glowing electric heart device, it's a nifty, squishy gross-out and a terrific love scene. Too often, superhero films feel like a different species of entertainment from the smudged comic books that spawned them. Iron Man takes you back to the days when you sprawled out in front of those books, flipping through the adventures of a dude who was too vital, and vulnerable, to ever be a mere F/X object. Even at his coolest, Downey's Iron Man remains a ghostly, neurotic crusader one whose life, in the Marvel tradition, has become a grand spectacle of overcompensation. B+