Iron Man

Score one for the underdogs: “Iron Man” is certainly not the most well-known or beloved title in the Marvel comic book canon, yet the film adaptation proves to be as plucky, as confident, and as polished as if it were the keystone. If it lacks a little oomph in the story department, or if you could wish for maybe one more action sequence, Robert Downey Jr.’s dynamo central performance makes overlooking those slight flaws an easy thing to do.

Downey plays Tony Stark, a billionaire playboy and brilliant engineer whose company’s lucrative weapons-manufacturing business has earned him the nickname “Merchant of Death.” But Tony Stark doesn’t care. Everything about him — his sardonic patter, his Scotch-watered eyes, his Malibu beach palace — proclaims that he doesn’t care.

It’s while he’s on a visit to the Middle East, demonstrating Stark Industries’ latest stuff-blowing-up advancements, that Tony starts to care. He has a life-altering experience with a squad of particularly nasty terrorists who want to use his engineering prowess for evil; he uses it to outsmart them and live to drink another day. But he returns to the U.S. a changed man, declaring as soon as he’s back that Stark Industries will no longer manufacture weapons. His business partner and one-time mentor, Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges), astutely points out that this will be quite a liability for a weapons-manufacturing company.

But Tony had an epiphany while he was in captivity, and now he sets to work perfecting a big, awesome-looking suit made of titanium and steel and stuff (not actually iron, he points out later). This suit, which makes him look a bit like a Power Ranger, has rocket boosters in the feet and stabilizers in the hands, and he can also shoot … um … power laser energy force wave thingees out of the hands. No effort is made to explain any of the science, and I probably wouldn’t understand it anyway. Trust me, it’s cool.

Tony doesn’t have a specific objective in mind when he builds the suit, but he finds a mission almost immediately after its completion when the terrorists who held him begin attacking small villages in the Middle East with weapons his company designed. His one-man-army tactics gain the attention of the U.S. military, including Jim Rhodes (Terrence Howard), an old friend of Tony’s, and his company’s connection to military buyers. They also rile up Obadiah, who you can tell has ulterior motives because he shaves his head but wears a beard.

Like many origin stories, “Iron Man” is focused more on character and story than on action sequences, and you’ll be disappointed if you go in expecting wall-to-wall explosions and fights. Nonetheless, the action sequences we do get are terrific, high on thrills and low on excess just for the sake of excess. Jon Favreau’s directorial credits — which include “Elf” and “Zathura” — have blended comedy, fantasy, and special effects; “Iron Man” turns out to be a natural extension of his talents.

It’s a good fit for Downey, too. Granted, playing a charming, heavy-drinking playboy isn’t much of a stretch, but he also imbues Tony Stark with just enough real emotion to give him some substance. This is a man who can get just as many laughs interacting with the non-speaking robotic arms that help him create the suit as he does interacting with his faithful assistant Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow). (And it’s nice to see Paltrow being fun and light, too.)

There’s every chance “Iron Man” will become a franchise (it ends with some tantalizing sequel ideas), and I suspect part 2 will be even better. Part 1 stands well on its own, and it’s a bonus that the non-action scenes are funny and entertaining rather than just valleys between adrenaline peaks. Could the story line be a little stronger, more straightforward? Yeah, sure. It could use better villains, too. But hey, that suit — you can’t go wrong with that suit.

B (2 hrs., 6 min.; PG-13, a lot of action violence; nothing terribly graphic, but there is a lot of it; also some brief mild sexuality.)