The first blockbuster of 2008's interesting-looking, largely sequel-less summer, Iron Man, casts Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark: a genius of mechanics, international playboy and billionaire arms manufacturer who goes under the unfortunate nickname "The Merchant of Death". Stark is breezing through life, paying scant regard to those to whom he flogs his own-brand WMDs, until he pays a trip to Afghanistan to negotiate another sale, whereupon the convoy he's travelling in comes under attack from the forces of dramatic irony.
Stark is captured, and wakes up - in a scene more reminiscent of the Saw films than any mainstream summer event movie - to discover the Afghans have sewn an electromagnetic device into his chest. His captors want him to build a missile for them, but he rebels and - MacGyver-like - instead uses the kit available to fashion for himself a combination of a suit of armour and the ultimate smart bomb: and lo, another movie superhero, and another superhero franchise is born. The Iron Man cometh.
Marvel's comic book series has here been entrusted to Jon Favreau, an actor (most notably in 1996's Swingers) turned competent director (Made, Zathura) who takes a cameo here - looking slimmer than he has on screen for some time - as Stark's chauffeur. His biggest contribution behind the camera has been to ensure the film is stocked with fellow performers capable of finding grace notes in the middle of what often resembles a trade fair for the military-industrial complex.
For starters, Downey Jr. more than confirms the general feeling this was the most inspired pick to play a superhero since Michael Keaton in the first Batman movie. Few other performers could make Stark's fiddling around with technology, testing the limits of his own equipment, messing about with a screwdriver ("Yep, I can fly") so engaging. Gwyneth Paltrow brings a welcome softness to proceedings as housekeeper Pepper Potts (what were her parents smoking?), while Stark's business partner Obadiah Stane is played by Jeff Bridges with a grumpy Michael Eavis look: bald, bearded, plotting - if you couldn't tell from the way he wields a cigar, the Dickensian villainy lurking in his name, or the manner in which he lurks behind Stark throughout, he's up to no good.
Within its comic-book universe, Iron Man functions as witty, well-paced, above-average entertainment that does an efficient job in sketching out the parameters of a potentially enduring and profitable franchise. Nothing here matches the effect of the first Spider-Man movie, but it's less obnoxious than Transformers, and there are signs that a sequel might yet let rip and have real fun with these characters. (Stay tuned through the end credits for a taste of attractions to come.)
Where it doesn't deliver on the trailer, however, is that it's nowhere near as savvy about real-world politics as we might have been led to hope. At best, the four-man screenplay is confused about what we're supposed to be cheering; at worst, it's outright evasive. Lip service is paid to the debate on whether weapons uphold or preclude peace, before the film forks out for the shiniest technology and noisiest whizz-crash-bangs the dollar can currently buy. Favreau has gone on the record in saying he didn't want to use the film as a political platform - a shrewd position for a director trying to build a career in a town where opening weekends matter, and especially so, given the box-office underperformance of recent anti-war movies.
Instead, he and the film hedge their bets, and in doing so, Iron Man lets slip the opportunity to make what would have likely been the loudest and most widely heard pacifist statement of the year. Had it squeezed in even a few more subversive elements, it would have been the riot that trailer promised; as it is, Iron Man shares with its hero a glowing electromagnetic coil at its core: it's machine-tooled, eminently serviceable, and - for the time being, at least - a franchise operating in the absence of anything like a heart.
Iron Man is available on DVD through Paramount Home Entertainment.