With fictional movies about the United States' post-9/11 military adventures now coming fully onstream, it is possible to see two distinct categories emerging. One can be labelled Anti-War: Nick Broomfield's Battle for Haditha and Brian De Palma's Redacted. Another group can be called Fence-Sitter - Robert Redford's Lions for Lambs, Peter Berg's The Kingdom, Kimberly Peirce's Stop-Loss - a muddled, desperately liberal-patriot genre that yearns, in the manner of Gov Bill Clinton in the early 1990s, to support the troops rather than the war. Offhand, I can think of only one truly Pro-War film, and that is Hiner Saleem's Kilomètre Zéro (2005), about Saddam's genocidal persecution of the Kurds, a movie that concludes with a remarkable sequence showing forthright, entirely unironic rejoicing among the Kurdish diaspora at the US invasion.

Iron Man is, in its way, a refreshing change to all this. And its opening sequence is an exhilarating, even brilliant wish-fulfilment fantasy dramatising America's yearning for a virile exit strategy. These are the adventures of the Marvel Comic superhero, updated from the original 60s Vietnam-era setting to the current situation in Afghanistan. We begin with a panoramic wide shot of the stark, spare, mountainous Afghan landscape. A military convoy is speeding grimly along; presently we become aware of a bizarre and incongruous civilian passenger in one of the hulking Humvees, cracking wise and attempting to flirt with the female service personnel: Tony Stark, billionaire playboy, technical genius and patriotic arms manufacturer under sole contract to the US military. He is played by Robert Downey Jr, deploying a slightly modified version of his instantly familiar frazzled, punchy delivery.

The convoy comes under terrifying attack, and louche Tony has time to register his own brand-name on the ordnance before he is knocked unconscious and taken prisoner, coming round in a cave to find a fellow captive and medic has installed an innovative electro-magnetic ring in his chest keeping him alive. His captors demand he builds a hi-tech bomb for them. Instead, in an inspired twist, Stark secretly creates an iron flying-suit exo-skeleton which repels the bad guys' bullets with a satisfying clang. Iron Man comes clanking out of his cave and kicks insurgent ass before uncorking a flame-assisted vertical takeoff. A new superhero is born and he is capable of one extraordinary, mindblowing, superhuman feat that every US presidential candidate dreams about. He can get the hell out of the Middle East!

Iron Man is a mixture of Robocop and Darth Vader, with a hint of the Iron Man that Ted Hughes once imagined: only he is less mysterious, and essentially duller than each of these. After the hilarious opening section, we return to Tony's long initiation into his new pacifist superhero identity, developing a Mk II exo-skeleton in a sleek new burgundy-red shade. Unfortunately, it's one long anticlimax.

It turns out that Stark has a fantastic bachelor pad in Malibu that is already sumptuously appointed in a manner befitting a superhero or indeed a supervillain. This is to be the venue for Stark's sexual conquest of impertinent Vanity Fair journalist, and blond troublemaker Christine Eberhart (Leslie Bibb), who attempts to patronise Stark's trusted PA, a woman with the Moneypenny-ish name of Pepper Potts. She is played by Gwyneth Paltrow, the Queen of Bland, and there is a yucky scene in which Stark and Pepper almost kiss and it looks worryingly like some sort of sibling-incest. He also has a best-buddy-cum-wing-man in the form of a soldier called Rhodey, in which role Terrence Howard is performing at about 35% strength. There is also Obadiah Stane, who was a close associate of Stark's late father and a man who encourages the wayward boy genius to think of him as a dad figure. As played by Jeff Bridges, he is sporting the upside-down face look: completely shaved head and a beard. The question of who is going to turn out to be the bad guy on the home front should not detain you for long.

As I mentioned above, Iron Man, for all its disposability, makes a cheerful and unpretentious change to the current crop of war movies. At least at first. But I am sorry to say that it is guilty of the sneaky chauvinist trick of making the ultimate villain an American: a mannerism common to many Hollywood movies that cannot quite bring themselves to accord foreigners the status of effective enmity.

As for Downey, he is such a distinctive, not to say barking mad performer, quite unlike anyone else around, that it is always good to see him. But I can't quite see his Iron Man capturing the imagination. Despite the convulsively jittery address to the role, he is never in the smallest degree engaging in the way director Jon Favreau appears to think. We are supposed to see the vulnerable, adorable hero inside the hulking iron shell. Instead, Downey is the Man in the Iron Mask: imprisoned within a carapace of tics and mannerisms. Clearly Iron Man 2 is being readied: but this is a franchise that is already beginning to rust.


Peter Bradshaw

The GuardianTramp

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