The mighty world of Marvel superheroes continues to receive the big screen treatment with this blockbuster adaptation of just about the last of the comic book publisher’s original creations from the 1960s (Matthew Vaughn’s forthcoming shot at Thor notwithstanding). Directed by Jon Favreau and starring Robert Downey Jr (both fans of the comics), it’s a smart update of the title that remains faithful to its spirit and maintains a perfectly poised balancing act between taking the fantastical material seriously and treating it with a knowing sense of humour.
Working from a script co-written by Mark Fergus and Hawk Ostby (who penned the Oscar-nominated Children of Men), Favreau focuses on the original story of Iron Man and his human alter ego, the billionaire weapons manufacturer and playboy Tony Stark. During a trip to the Middle East Stark is kidnapped by Afghan insurgents (it was Vietnamese communists in the comic) and forced by them to assemble a state-of-the-art missile system from captured Stark Industries ordinance.
What he actually makes is a suit of hi-tech armour complete with super strength and jet-powered boots. But although he uses it to escape his captors, the first hand experience of seeing the destruction wrought by his company’s products prompts Stark to renounce munitions manufacture and instead use his super-powered outfit to right his wrongs. That change of heart, however, doesn’t go down well with Stark’s nefarious business partner Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges), who’s keen to exploit the new and potentially lethal technology.
Updated to the present day, the film locates Tony Stark/Iron Man’s story of professional irresponsibility and personal redemption firmly within the context of the war on terror. It’s a perfect setting for Marvel Comics’ most morally ambiguous character, although the film doesn’t labour its political point too much. Instead, it provides plenty of spectacle – most impressively Iron Man’s climactic battle with another and bigger invulnerable tin man – game performances from a cast that also includes Gwyneth Paltrow and Terrence Howard, and a constantly amusing line in offbeat humour cooked up by those swingers Favreau and Downey Jr.
Out now on general release.