Hollywood has unearthed an unlikely weapon of mass destruction: Robert Downey Jr. In "Iron Man" (* * * out of four), Downey's likably snide playboy character is cut from the same anti-hero cloth as Johnny Depp's Jack Sparrow -- and he's primed to annihilate the competition this weekend.
Downey's Tony Stark, the weapons magnate who creates and dons the high-tech suit, is charismatic, sarcastic and witty. And he finds a way to fuse swaggering confidence with soulful self-deprecation, transforming a comic-book hero into an offbeat and complex character.
The billionaire inventor's family has been in weapons manufacturing since the A-bomb, but he never did much soul-searching. His worldview is radically altered in Afghanistan after being taken prisoner; he builds the super-suit and vows to do good.
Jon Favreau ("Elf," "Swingers") directs a strong ensemble cast, including Jeff Bridges, who cleverly plays Stark's right-hand man; Terrence Howard, Stark's nicely underplayed military pal; and Gwyneth Paltrow, just right as Stark's assistant, Pepper Potts.
The extra heft brought to their cartoonish characters and the special-effects action make "Iron Man" entertaining and fun — though the second half has less snap, and a pivotal fight sequence between Iron Man and a nemesis is predictable.
Along with the expected Marvel comic-book feats enacted with expert computer-generation imagery, the film blends elements of "Transformers" with James Bond movies.
As Stark soars around in his titanium alloy outfit, aiming fireballs with perfect precision, he is as potent a figure as Superman. He's as rich as Bruce Wayne with an extra dollop of science-guy nerdiness, finished off with a heaping dose of snark. Iron Man's biggest strength is that the fantastically armored suit doesn't overpower the intriguingly flawed character encased within.
(Opens Thursday night in some markets, nationwide Friday. Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi action and violence and brief suggestive content. Running time: 2 hours, 6 minutes.)