Jon Favreau's entrance to the big-time as a director is a largely successful one. Continuing in a string of casting atypical leads in superhero fare, Favreau (looking quite a bit slimmer in the film than he has in years) sets the lens on Robert Downey, Jr. as his Tony Stark, and the results are fantastic. Downey seems to have been born to play the part of the reformed amoral rock-star scientist--well, maybe not the scientist part, but the rest would seem to have been almost tailor-made for him--and he takes the role and runs with it. His impish charm and razor-sharp wit prove to be capable of carrying the film almost entirely by themselves, and almost every moment Downey is on screen is captivating.
In support, the performances and roles are not as impressive. Where the character of Tony Stark is rich and complex, many of the other characters would have benefitted from a little more attention in the way of backstory and subplot. Obviously, in launching a franchise, there is a need for a fair amount of exposition to establish the hero, and a great degree of screen time is devoted to this. Moreover, with a run-time of just over two hours, there isn't a lot of room for exposition on secondary characters. Unfortunately, this means actors like Terrence Howard, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Jeff Bridges are left to play what amounts to cardboard cut-outs. To their credit, they do manage to breath life into Colonel Rhodes, Pepper Potts, and Obadiah Stane, respectively, and--but for an occasionally awkward interchange between Howard and Downey--they do manage to help carry the story. It just seems as though there could have been a little more going on with the supporting cast.
As for the other elements of the film, it is hard to find complaint. For a film that is largely devoted to designing weapon technology, it doesn't really drag at all. The fight choreography is generally pretty engaging. When Stark is in the suit, Favreau manages to keep the viewer involved with intercut shots of Downey's face inside the suit, something that allows the audience to remain involved with the hero, accomplishing what the Spider-Man franchise (to give just one example) has had problems achieving. And this may seem a trivial complaint about other films in this genre, but where other films ("Ghost Rider", "Batman Begins", "The Incredible Hulk", etc.) fail to have the actor's distinct voice while in hero-mode, Downey is the voice of Iron Man. Unfortunately, Bridges' voice is amplified, coming across as maybe the only major directorial misstep in the film.
Now to have read this review, one may think that my reaction was slightly better than tepid. The film was pretty good. It opens with action, and then takes a few steps back, which is an effective method of attack, although it may take just a little too long to get back to where the opening left off. Once he's in the caves of Afghanistan, the film maintains a steady course, and Faran Tahir's Raza is a particularly terrifying foil early on. Aside from the absence of really strong secondary characters and a little bit of fat in the rewind (oh, and Downey's interplay with his robotic aides occasionally approached Luke Skywalker/C-3PO/R2D2 territory), this film is damn good. Downey is triumphant, and the film is called "Iron Man", so that was really going to make or break the film. Anything that the film lacks as a whole, he more than makes up for, leaving the viewer largely sated.