Special Effects: A-
Rarely does a superhero movie present its hero with such a litany of character flaws, and Iron Man wouldn't be nearly as good without it. Granted, the character flaws are pretty rote for a less-than-perfect man in a Hollywood movie; he's a womanizing alcoholic. But how often is that seen in a superhero? And more importantly, who else could possibly offer the same impeccable delivery as Robert Downey Jr., an actor with a pretty similar personal history?
This is a very strong character who has virtually nothing in common with the teenage petulance in the likes of Peter Parker or even Clark Kent. He's not even that young -- refreshingly, Downey plays his own age (he's 43), with the ironic playfulness of a cynic who knows how to work a morally ambiguous history to his own advantage.
With the exception of a pretty predictable superhero plot arc (complete with villain speechifying) in a good-but-not-great script by a team of four different writers, virtually everything about Iron Man is refreshing. Like Batman, Tony Stark (Downey Jr.) has no superhuman strengths but relies on self-made gadgets and his own genius-- but unlike Batman, who has such a hard time with his own dark side, Iron Man has no psychological hang-ups with duality. He's a war profiteer who has a change of heart (literally) after he is kidnapped in Afghanistan by people using the very weapons he manufactured, giving his new-found mission a moral center even if his character seems to lack one.
Ultimately, Stark's colleague, played by Jeff Bridges, is Iron Man's nemesis, and frankly he isn't all that interesting as villains go. It's a rare thing when a superhero is actually far more interesting than the supervillain (indeed, actors usually clamor for the villain roles, but "Iron Monger" has very little meat to it here). Robert Downey Jr. pulls it off so seamlessly, however, that even without the typical villain flash, Iron Man is thoroughly entertaining from beginning to end.
In fact, even the role of Tony Stark's assistan, Pepper Potts, is impeccably cast with Gwyneth Paltrow, a woman who is relatively often miscast in movies, but has fantastic chemistry with Downey. The same can be said of Terrence Howard as Stark's military buddy Jim Rhodes. Thanks to the wonderful cast, Iron Man is never over the top, and yet it never has a dull moment -- particularly as long as Downey Jr. is on the screen.
Iron Man ends not just with the requisite indication of sequels to come, but on a perfectly gratifying note, and one that bucks the most typical of superhero movie trends. It may be perfectly recognizable as a superhero story, but the pleasure is in the details, where director Jon Favreau (Elf) truly sets it apart from the competition. Even the special effects are refreshingly understated; Transformers this is not: Every effects shot is expertly rendered, but none are used just for the purpose of showing off state-of-the-art effects technology.
The effects, as well as the actors, are always there to serve the story, rather than the other way around. This is a very rare thing for a high-profile superhero movie, and an angle plenty of other blockbusters could learn from. Even with its relatively obvious flaws, Iron Man is a riveting story from start to finish, and for all the right reasons.