I remember when Die Hard first came out in 1988. The reaction my friends and I had to the ads was, "Bruce Willis, the smarmy guy from Moonlighting, starring in the sort of action picture that usually features Arnold Schwarzenegger? What a joke!" We went to see it for a laugh at Willis's expense, and were shocked at how much we actually liked it. The reason, of course, was that it was a well-written, well-plotted film about characters that you could actually get involved with. And the stunt casting of Willis was a refreshing change from the likes of, well, Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Pirates of the Caribbean (the first movie) surprised audiences in much the same way, thanks to Johnny Depp's legendarily eccentric performance, and I suppose that's also why Iron Man has turned out to be a sleeper hit. Smirky Robert Downey Jr., whom everybody has always generally liked and supported despite his endless drug-related shenanigans, is still not the sort of guy you would expect to see starring in a superhero movie. And that is a major part of why Iron Man works. It also helps that Iron Man the comic book doesn't have a huge following, so expectations – as with Die Hard – were low. Audiences were willing to accept anything even halfway decent. This isn't Batman we're talking about, after all.
Casting a quirky anti-icon in a film about a not-very-well-known superhero was a double risk for Marvel Studios' first self-financed feature. But what often makes Downey too smug for his own good – his rapid patter, his jokey attitude, his squirreliness – works very well here in a film that would be deadly serious (and deadly dull) with a Tom Cruise or a Matt Damon in the lead. Pairing strong casting (Gwyneth Paltrow, Terrence Howard, and Jeff Bridges, well-respected thespians all, round out the principal cast) with a shrewd release date turned out to be a very smart recipe for Iron Man's success. After several months of tepid product hitting the box office, moviegoers were absolutely starving for something big and fun to get their butts into theaters. This film came around at just the right time.
But I'm going on and on about the business of this movie, and not about the movie itself. Shame on me.
So it's a very basic superhero origin story, about how cynical weapons manufacturer Stark is kidnapped in Afghanistan, forced to build a missile for a team of frightening insurgents, and creates a super-powered iron suit for himself instead. There are a few twists and turns along the way and afterwards, but the screenplay is pretty formulaic: you've got the buddy, the almost-romance with the girl, and the friend who betrays our hero and becomes his worst enemy.
That most of the film's ultimate conflict doesn't even arrive until the third act says a lot about how Iron Man is happy to take its time developing its story and its relationships before delivering the explosions. A smart move, especially as, in retrospect, those action scenes aren't really all that exciting.
Most people, including myself, are enjoying Iron Man because it's fun to watch Downey play off Paltrow, Bridges, Howard, and an array of personality-rich computer systems and robotic arms. It's a breezy, enjoyable time at the movies, and it serves as a worthy introduction to the summer blockbuster season. Oh, and make sure you stay until the very end of the final credits for a truly wonderful fanboy surprise!