This year's big superhero movies offer some weird casting (brainy little Edward Norton as the Hulk, anyone?), but none weirder than Robert Downey Jr.—he's 43, bears the traces of his drugs-and-jail life on his face and has never even come near a blockbuster. He's not exactly superhero material. Which is why he's so good as Tony Stark, a selfish, arrogant arms dealer and mechanics genius who has made millions from selling singularly destructive weapons to the U.S. government and manages to get by on a sort of devil-may-care a-hole charm that works on women and generals.
Clark Kent he's not. After a demonstration of his latest to the Air Force in the Afghanistan desert, Stark gets kidnapped by an Afghan warlord—whose men wreak havoc on surrounding villages with ill-gotten cache of Stark product—and forced to build an advanced missile. Instead, Stark builds a crude iron suit to try to save himself and a doctor who is also held hostage. A changed man once he comes back to the U.S., he makes himself a real flying Iron Man suit—with the help of some seriously jaw-dropping special effects—and starts trying to undo some of the destruction that he himself has caused through his company.
That twist—an imperfect man taking responsibility for his own actions—the up-to-the-minute plot is part of what makes Iron Man so fresh. Downey's off-the-charts charisma could easily overpower anyone else in the movie, but his performanced is nuanced enough to prevent that, and in any case, the movie features some solid actors in supporting roles, especially Jeff Bridges as Stark's mentor and Terrence Howard as his Colin Powellesque friend. Even the usually uber-patrician Gwyneth Paltrow comes down to earth for a charming turn as Stark's assistant with an impossibly stupid name, Pepper Potts.