Weapons manufacturer and playboy Tony Stark (Downey Jr.) travels to Afghanistan with his good friend Lt. Colonel Rhodes (Terrence Howard) to show off his new weapon of mass destruction, the Jericho. He is ambushed and taken hostage by a terrorist group that call themselves the Ten Rings, who seriously wound Stark, causing shrapnel to lodge dangerously close to his heart. An electromagnet is developed by fellow captive Yinsen (Shaun Toub) to keep the shrapnel away from his heart, and the two are forced to build the Jericho from parts of Stark's stolen weapons. He instead builds a prototype metal suit, which he uses to all but destroy the terrorist group and escape back to America. After calling a press conference where he announces that Stark Industries will cease war profiteering, Stark builds his Iron Man suit with the help of his assistant Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow). Seeing stocks falling and the potential collapse of the company, Stark's business partner Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges) wants the technology for himself.
The main problem that faces most superhero origin films is having to combine the protagonist's development into the hero of the title with a villain capable of giving the hero a genuine threat to face, as well as blending them together to form one cohesive storyline. Marvel in particular have had trouble with their super-villains, with only Thor's multi-dimensional Loki, played with a thespian quality by Tom Hiddleston, proving successful. Iron Man suffers here too, only it seems almost irrelevant. Obadiah Stane does eventually don a gigantic metal suit for a big showdown at the climax, but Stane's menace comes from his corporate greed, offering only slight hints at what goes on in the big, bald dome of his, while coming across as a trusted friend to Stark.
It is Stark's personal development that takes centre stage, and it's a true joy to watch it. At first, he is cocky, smarmy, and filthy-rich, and after he gets a wake-up call, he is still cocky, smarmy and filthy-rich. Only now he understands the devastation his weapons program is inflicting of thousands of innocents, who up until now, Stark has casually viewed through the safety of his television. In the wrong hands, Stark could have been a disaster, apparently caring little for the ramifications of his actions, buying priceless works of art he'll never see just because he can. Downey Jr. injects the same energy he's been putting into his characters throughout his entire career - fast-talking and wise-cracking, almost comically narcissistic. But Downey Jr. is best at giving his characters an underlying sense of damage beneath the cocky exterior, perhaps a reflection on his long-standing problems in real-life, and this helps give Stark an undeniable depth, and therefore making him effortlessly fascinating to watch.
Iron Man is most entertaining when showing Stark at work - bashing various parts together, interacting with his robots and his house computer Jarvis (voiced by Paul Bettany), and testing his newly acquired powers. His first flying trial has him hovering uncomfortably and struggling for complete control, destroying his hoard of expensive super cars in the process. It's a funny, exciting scene, rounded off with "yeah, I can fly". It's rare for a superhero film to be so successful in portraying the development of its character, whether having to experience a mutation, an experiment gone wrong, or facing childhood fears, this proves that simply building a metal super-suit is far more entertaining. This is still Marvel's best pre-Avengers effort, including it's vastly inferior sequel, and Tony Stark was the best to watch amongst the massive ensemble when the giant ego's finally came together. But that's all down to the care given to this film, which is quite simply a massive hoot.
Directed by: Jon Favreau
Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, Terrence Howard, Jeff Bridges