Short version: While not perfect, it comes pretty damn close - Iron Man is one of the best superhero movie adaptations to hit the big screen so far.
And yes, you can rest easy - especially if you're a long time Iron Man fan, this movie will rock your world. If you're not, get ready to witness the launch of the next big superhero franchise.
Believe it or not, this is one of the more difficult reviews I've written. I've been a huge supporter of this film, the production and Jon Favreau since day one, and I've also been looking forward to it probably longer than most of you reading this have been alive. :-) So it was difficult to balance the fanboy love for the character and the fact that I want it to do well, with an objective look at the film as a whole.
So, without any further delay, here's my review, free of any major spoilers...
The movie opens with the very familiar scene of Tony Stark (played by Robert Downey Jr.) riding in a Humvee with some soldiers in what is presumably Afghanistan. Although we've seen about a minute of this scene in trailers and clips, there's much more to it that's very funny and serves to start giving us a sense of who Stark is almost immediately. He's a billionare, but he's very engaging and as far from "stuffy" as you can imagine. Within a couple of minutes he puts the intimidated soldiers at ease.
Of course just as that happens all hell breaks loose when an explosion takes out the vehicle ahead of theirs and brings their convoy to a stop. They're obviously outgunned and the vehicle (and soldiers are peppered with armor piercing bullets. Stark manages to get away from the vehicle and behind cover where he tries to call for help, but (as we've seen) he gets hit by shrapnel from another explosion.
The movie then cuts to a recent flashback, less than two days prior, giving us a look at Stark in his own element: Partying hard in Vegas and charming the pants off ladies (quite literally, actually). Here we're introduced to his long time friend and military liason Rhodey (played by Terrence Howard), his father-figure Obadiah Stane (played by Jeff Bridges) and Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), his ever-on-the-ball personal assistant.
It doesn't take long for director Jon Favreau (who also plays Stark's driver, 'Happy' Hogan) to establish the dynamic between Tony and those who surround him: Stane is the 'responsible' one who handles the details of running the company, putting up with Tony's impetuous personality; Rhodey also suffers Stark's personality, but at his core we almost see that he wishes he could be as carefree; finally Pepper is Tony's rock: she keeps him on track and grounded and we see the playful sexual tension between them that is very close from boiling over into something serious, but has been held back to maintain their working relationship.
When we cut back to Stark in Afghanistan, we see his cocky attitude even in business as he demonstrates a state of the art missile system to the high ranking officers in the field. From here we move back to the explosion and then him as captive, where we meet Professor Yinsen (Shaun Toub), who has jury rigged a device to keep Tony alive. Stark is completely disoriented but Yinsen has been there for quite a while and instructs him on how to act in order to not be immediately killed by his captors.
The terrorists (known as "The Ten Rings") want him to build them a version of that very same missile, which for reasons revealed in the film will not be as difficult as you might think in his cave environment. Instead Stark has an epiphany regarding his role in conflicts around the world and decides instead to construct something that will allow him and Yinsen to escape: The Mark I armor.
The scenes that follow are very well done and it's no cakewalk for Stark and Yinsen to get away with building this right under the video-watching noses of their captors. Within the context of a superhero movie, I actually found this part of the film very effective and even believable. When we finally get to the escape itself, it is nothing less than absolutely thrilling as they run out of time and Stark finally gets to take his vengeance on his captors. Actually, in the notes I took down during the film I used the following as a reminder: AWESOME!
Stark makes it back to California where he makes an announcement that does not sit well at all with Stane or even his pal Rhodey, and he sets out to create a more streamlined version of his first prototype armor. He utilizes the help of his A.I. "butler," Jarvis (no it's not a robot) to construct and test the suit. Some of the funniest moments in the film take place here during his initial attempts at flight and when he takes the Mark II armor out for it's first spin.
From here Stark feels the weight of the responsibility of what his company has contributed to conflicts in the Middle East and at least briefly takes matters into his own hands. Things get complicated and eventually as you must know, he has to confront Obadiah Stane in the Iron Monger armor which was based on the Mark I.
Yeah, yeah... but what's the bottom line, you ask? Is it any good? The short answer is it's not good - it's great.
If you're a long time Iron Man fan from the comics who's been waiting for this movie forever, your fanboy geek meter is going to be pegged, no question. If you never heard of Iron Man until you started seeing commercials for this, you, too will think it's awesome.
At the screening I attended, every time Downey Jr donned a new set of armor the crowd went nuts. The reaction was extremely positive with cheers coming from the audience three or four times during the course of the film, lots of laughter and applause at the closing credits.
One of the absolute best things about this film as far as comic book fans will be concerned is how faithful the movie is to the spirit of not only Tony Stark/Iron Man, but of the supporting characters as well. Favreau reached back to classic Tony Stark instead of depending on the more recent incarnations of the character: Impetuous, a bit older, risk taker and charming as hell throughout.
On the other hand he incorporated more modern-day elements into the technology of the armor, taken from the more recent comics. While purists may be annoyed at not having the skin-tight, Oscar-shiny armor in a briefcase, that just would not have worked nearly as well on the big screen.
The action sequences were awesome, and it was quite difficult to distinguish the practical suits from the CGI versions. Loved the way they made Iron Man fly, with slow, gentle takeoffs and super-fast landings (quite the opposite of Superman), and the in-air flight sequences were shot in a way that also made them very believable. The bells and whistles contained in the armor and used during various fights were very cool. In particular a scene where he faces off with terrorists using civilians as human shields.
I loved the chemistry between Downey Jr. and Paltrow. I'm not a big fan of hers as I usually find her kind of cold on-screen, but here she was business-like but also emanated a warm glow that made her vulnerable and appealing. I thought Jeff Bridges was a bit under-utilized, but for me the weak link and character chain was Terrence Howard as Rhodey. Maybe for those unfamiliar with the comics it won't be an issue, but for me he didn't work. As someone suggested earlier someone more like a way toned down Wesley Snipes would have fit the character better in my opinion.
So what kept it from getting a solid 5/5? After the first incredible, awesome first hour, it seemed like the film kind of lost its direction a bit. Like Tony didn't really know what to do with the armor. A lot of time was spent in the building of it, but it didn't seem like there was quite enough payoff from all that time spent. A lot of people were concerned that Iron Man wouldn't have a long enough running time, but I really think that it could have used some trimming to tighten things up from it's just over 2 hour length.
Also, yes, we all crave footage, trailers and images prior to a movie opening as we froth at the mouth from anticipation, but the fact that every action sequence in the movie was hinted at or partially shown in released footage took something away. It would have been fantastic if there had been at least ONE action sequence in the film that we had no clue about. Paramount, please take note of that for the next film. :-)
On the other hand, even having seen so many clips, when the action hit, it was AWESOME to behold. And fans will love the reference to "The Ten Rings" and I'll be damned if we haven't seen the Mandarin in this movie. :-)
All in all though it more than lived up to my expectations and I can't wait for a sequel now that the origin story is out of the way!
P.S. Yes, you need to stay through to the end of the credits for a brief, but fanboy-cool scene. :-)