Iron Man is a film that had everything going against it. It languished for years in development hell, went through no less than three potential directors, at least two other title stars (including Tom Cruise – yikes!), and eventually became the first film financed by a new film studio division of Marvel Comics. Once director Jon Favreau signed on as director, the sparks of doom didn’t stop flying even then. Robert Downey, Jr. was announced to fill the title role, and immediately tongues wagged. “Downey? he’s one messed up guy!”

Then I realized that so was Downey’s character, Tony Stark. This began a glimmer of hope. Gwyneth Paltrow was cast as Stark’s executive assistant Pepper Potts. Thus another twinkle. With Jeff Bridges added to the principle cast, there was finally something that wasn’t in the mix before: hope that it just might not suck!

Iron Man, like all of the other superhero films of late have three standards it must meet before it will be accepted in the realm of great movies. The question isn’t whether it would be good; instead, it was a question of whether it would reach the level of quality that was seen with 2002’s Spider-Man, 2005’s Batman Begins, and the ultimate superhero film standard, 1978’s Superman: The Movie. To date, only one comic book film has surpassed all of these standards, and that was Spider-Man 2, released in 2004.

HULK SMASH! Oops, wrong movie.

Either Iron Man would hold up to these standards, or it would be another abysmal failure in the lines of Elektra, DareDevil, or Hulk. To say those movies were bad is an understatement.

Well, true believers, Iron Man does NOT suck. In fact, it’s so refreshingly brilliant that it sets itself as a standard in its own right. The script is refreshingly sharp, as Mark Fergus, Hawk Ostby, Art Marcum, and Matt Holloway somehow were able to deliver even after several rewrites. The characters are real; they’re human, they’re smart, and they have depth. The first scene with Gwyneth Paltrow had me completely satisfied with her integrity as a great character.

The film’s true star, though, is Downey, who fills the screen with complete brilliance, and shines through at every opportunity. In a role that could have been nothing more than wit and one-liners, Downey deliverers a genuine depth that can only be touched on in future films.

Oh yes, the inevitable sequels. We’ve all seen films that say, “There’ll be a sequel” when we see some sort of ridiculous revival of a villain or a subtle-as-a-baseball-hint that makes such a sequel obvious. A good example would be the 1980 camp classic Flash Gordon when a supposedly-dead Ming (Max Von Sydow) picks up his ring after the closing credits.

Yes, there’s a setup for a franchise with Iron Man, but its final scene is so refreshing, so satisfying, and so sharp in its dialogue, that a sequel is practically mandatory. What’s more, it leaves the viewer completely open to any number of possibilities; all of which in a world of hope. There are two films which have similar “final scenes;” Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home with the brand-new Enterprise-A flying into outer space, and the final flyby of the DeLorean in 1985’s Back to the Future.

The film opens and closes with dialogue from Downey’s Tony Stark, but it’s everything in between that elevates the film into full flight. The characters are rich, they’re deep, and they’re human. Even the final showdown with the Iron Monger (a beefed up version of Stark’s super suit) is met with a brutality that lets the audience feel every punch.

While there are indeed elements in the film that could have been trimmed or cut back, I actually WANTED to see the construction of the suits. It’s what was lacking in the first Spider-Man film. Part of the Spider-Man lore is that Peter created his own suit, but that was done with classic Sam Raimi shorthand. Favreau, on the other hand, not only made the technology believable, but he made his title character’s genius equally believable.

Clearly, Favreau knew that a film about incredibly intricate technology should also include equally complex characters. Every nut, every bolt, every twitch, and every quirk is seen. The plot, while somewhat predictable is as complex as a movie like this should be. In short, it works like the well-oiled machine that it is.

Iron Man is the first film of the 2008 Summer film season, and already it sets the tone – action movies can be great fun, and they can actually be great. It’s a classic popcorn movie that will thrill audiences all around with a ride that isn’t just escapism; it’s fantastic. Fanboys will appreciate the suits that were designed by Iron Man comic artists, and the rest of us will appreciate the fact that Iron Man is a fun ride for everyone.