Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr) is a wealthy weapons manufacturer, and acknowledged as a genius in his field with a long list of achievements and innovations in the world of the arms trade. At the moment he is in Afghanistan to demonstrate his new Jericho missile system, an extremely destructive force, but on the way back over the plains, he is making small talk with the soldiers in his vehicle when suddenly the truck in front is hit by an explosion. The soldiers order Stark to stay where he is while they get out to repel the enemy, but soon they are all dead and he is fleeing for his life...
And in a touch of irony, he is brought down by a rocket made by his own company. Well, less a touch, more a sledgehammer blow, as this adaptation of Marvel Comics' Iron Man prefers to deal in big gestures, and that includes the message it carries that maybe war isn't such a great way of solving problems. However, director Jon Favreau's film has a problem of its own, and this is that while it attempts to reform its main character it still has to rely on the spectacle of blowing up things real good, which in movie language translates as fun, fun, fun.
So as Stark turns peacemonger, the script is pushing, like his vice-president Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges in an alarming bald head and bushy beard combination), for more action. Why this change of heart in the weapons magnate? It's because he is captured by the Taleban, of course. Oops, no, make that some other fundamentalist group in Afghanistan, as they are never named as such, but we can tell from what we've seen on the news that this is who his captors are. Being a warlike bunch themselves, they show Stark that the other side is just as keen on bloodshed as the good guys when they instruct him to make a new missile for them and give him the materials to do it.
In addition, Stark gets an assistant, fellow prisoner Yinsen (Shaun Toub) who acts as translator and also provides him with a life lesson, teaching him that war is more than who has the biggest gun - it involves a lot of pain and sacrifice as well. To keep himself alive Stark devises a new type of power source (see? He is a genius) that acts as a type of pacemaker, and in a movie convention it lights up dramatically to illustrate how advanced and science fiction-y it is. To keep himself even more alive, it's not a missile that he builds in this makeshift, cave based lab, but a special suit which, even in its prototype form, can shield him from attack and fire off weapons.
Stark does get away, and this new suit has given him an idea as well as a pacifist point of view. Not that this anti-war mindset stops him building offence into his mark II version, but it's fully justified by his newfound sense of decency. Although, really it's because if he'd turned into a non-violent Gandhi a lot less people would have gone to see the film. Downey does well at bringing out some admirable qualities in what could have been a real turn off of a personality for the first half hour, and we see him through the eyes of his personal secretary Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), who understands he is not all bad and finds this new humanitarianism strangely attractive - although they never act on the attraction, a nice element of teasing tension. Add to this mix a good dose of setpieces which could have been your usual effects-heavy clashes but do nevertheless offer a note of true heroism, and Iron Man was not bad at all, for all its unsteady moral certainties. Music by Ramin Djawadi, which includes bursts of the expected Black Sabbath tune in a welcome reference.
[Paramount's 2-disc DVD has all the special features you could want: documentaries, deleted scenes, you name it. Packed into both discs, too.]