America was in the midst of the 17 year Vietnam conflict, part of the endless war against communism, when Iron Man, conceived by the legendary duo of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby and rendered by scripter Larry Lieber and artist Don Heck, sprang to life in the pages of Tales of Suspense #39 (March 1963).
Wealthy and good-looking industrialist/playboy Tony Stark, who inherited both his father's money and genius, journeys to Southeast Asia to demonstrate his latest weapon. When triggering a land mine, Stark falls into the hands of the Viet Cong warlord Wong-Chu. After informing Stark that a piece of shrapnel is lodged near his heart, giving Stark only a few days to live, Wong-Chu orders the inventor to create a powerful weapon. Once Stark is done, the warlord will order a surgeon to save Stark's life. Knowing the tyrant plans to not honor the bargain, Stark creates a suit of armor that not only keeps him alive without the surgery but enables him to escape.
Over the years, Marvel has changed the locale of Iron Man's origin to the first Gulf War and now Afghanistan without altering many variables beyond the nationality of the bad guy. For the Iron Man motion picture, director Jon Favreau maintains this formula for his faithful, enjoyable adaptation.
The movie opens, literally, with a bang. While America is in the midst of a seemingly endless war with Terrorism, Stark, magnificently envisioned by Robert Downey Jr., journeys to Afghanistan to display his new bomb. As in the comics, the fatally injured Stark falls into the hands of an Afghan warlord. Hidden in the mountain caves, Stark creates a suit of armor that helps him to escape and stay alive.
Other elements of the comic book merge with the live action version. Gwyneth Paltrow gives her best to flesh out the poorly-written Pepper Potts, Stark's brainy yet comely assistant. Military pilot Jim Rhodes, portrayed by the under utilized Terence Howard, attempts to protect Stark, his best friend. The usually understated Jeff Bridges steals several scenes as Stark's cunning business partner, Obadiah Stane.
The film never forgets that Downey and his CG suit of armor are the stars. Downey deftly portrays the womanizing Stark -- a bit of an asshole both in the comics and on the screen. He smirks, flirts, and fights like an American James Bond. Downey's Iron Man is one of the best Marvel character-to-screen transitions to date.
The suit itself evolves throughout the film. Beginning as a large grey behemoth, the armor slims to its sleek, traditional gold and red incarnation by story's end. The development of the armor offers some of the slowest moments in what is otherwise a fast-paced, exciting picture. Watching Stark talk to his almost sentient computers and robots, while cute at first, wears thin quickly. Thankfully, all these scenes lie within the middle third and are bracketed by far more dynamic scenes.
Favreau and his team of four scriptwriters managed to elevate this film far above the recent spate of inferior Marvel productions like Ghost Rider and The Fantastic Four, thus reigniting hope in forthcoming properties such as this summer's The Incredible Hulk and next year's X-Men Origins: Wolverine.
Combining an intelligent, well-conceived story matched with a nearly ideal cast and excellent special effects, Iron Man successfully joins the rarefied strata of other top-notch Marvel adaptations, Spider-Man and X-Men.