Iron Man is a Hollywood superhero blockbuster and probably the first of a franchise, even though it already feels like the 64th. These movies are always, in their way, whopping piles of junk, but they can be hugely enjoyable whopping piles of junk. The first Superman with Christopher Reeve, Tim Burton’s Batman Returns and Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man were all good, entertaining films, but is there anywhere left to go? The plots are now like old friends: a hero who is one thing by day and another by night; a svelte and lovely lady assistant who has no idea; an evil nemesis always intent on global domination (‘first, you; next, the world!’). But I can stay at home to see old friends. I don’t know if I want to go to the cinema for that.
This has a great line-up, as such films inevitably do, and stars Robert Downey Jnr as our Iron Man by night, although not at first. At first, he is Tony Stark, a billionaire playboy weapons industrialist who, on a sales trip to demonstrate a new missile to American forces in Afghanistan, is ambushed by a terrorist cell and dragged away to a cave full of pleasant, clean-shaven men who wish to provide him with aromatherapy sessions and maybe a shiatsu massage. Alas, no. They are dark and bearded, screech in foreign tongues a lot and are bad, through and through. I’m not sure to what extent anyone wants a super- hero to endorse American assumptions about the war on terror, but there you have it. (The original Marvel comic Iron Man foiled communist agents in the Sixties, so although this has been updated for modern times you may say the agenda hasn’t.)
Whatever, Stark is imprisoned and forced to reproduce one of his high-powered missiles with some scrap metal and a soldering iron. Instead, though, he uses the materials to construct a suit of robotic body armour and flee from the extremists’ clutches. The leader of the extremists, by the way, is Raza (Faran Tahir), who would, probably, be intent on soft furnishings for all — ‘First, cushions; next, slip-covers and throws!’ — if only he weren’t so keen on global domination.
So our hero returns home, to his Thunderbirds-style pad perched on a cliff top in Malibu and to his lovely, svelte lady assistant who has no idea and is Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow). I do not know if Pepper has siblings called Plant, Paint and Yoghurt. We are not told. Pepper is in love with Tony, but doesn’t know it yet, just as Tony is in love with Pepper, but doesn’t know it yet. You always have to save something for further along in the franchise. Pepper and Tony are fond of glib repartee but neither Paltrow nor Downey Jr seem quite to have their heart in it. I like Downey Jr, usually, with his dark wounded eyes, but here his performance veers between going though the motions and a look which seems to say, ‘Hey, what film am I doing again?’ Anyway, his new mission is to avenge those who misuse his technology. No, he cannot just stop making the technology. He can’t do this because his mentor at Stark Industries, Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges), won’t let him. Obadiah has a bald pate and a beard (which always rings alarm bells in comic-book land) and makes Jeff look as if he might be wearing his head upside-down. Obadiah doesn’t want much from life; only global domination. (Don’t these people realise that there are still some places in the world where people don’t have any cushions at all?)
This is not a movie for those who like the birth of a superhero to be quick. You know, the bite of the radioactive spider; the blast of an infant to earth from another planet. This film is 120 minutes long and we don’t even get a glimpse of Iron Man proper until 80 minutes in. The get-up is cool, in its way, with its bits that blast fire here, and bits that blast fire from there, but it’s so impersonal it could just be a magnified toy from Woolworth’s. The whole thing just seems a bit sad and old and tired, and for sad and old and tired I really can just stay home. Believe me.