Like the song goes, he is Iron Man. You may have never thought of Robert Downey Jr. as a superhero — and I don't want to hear why...

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Like the song goes, he is Iron Man.

You may have never thought of Robert Downey Jr. as a superhero — and I don’t want to hear why you think Michael Keaton was an inspired choice for Tim Burton’s weak “Batman.” But even though the inaugural Marvel Studios self-financed blockbuster doesn’t quite live up to the massive expectations craftily nurtured over the past year, Downey’s energy, humor and charisma make it fun.

Also, the Iron Man armor is righteously cool … when it’s finally in action. Maybe Tony Stark could invent an origin movie that fires on all cylinders.

A couple of other things in the movie’s favor, though, especially if you’re not an obsessive comic geek: It’s less preposterous and juvenile than your average superhero outing (the lack of Spandex doesn’t hurt), and for a character created 45 years ago, Iron Man translates to the contemporary screen more easily than any I can think of. No radioactive spider. No gamma radiation. (You can tell the Marvel Age characters by their rad measurements.) Just a moral awakening and nifty tech.

Downey’s Tony Stark is a Van Dyked gazillionaire industrialist, a genius inventor and a cocky, alcoholic womanizer who’s “constitutionally incapable of being responsible,” according to pal and military liaison Jim “Rhodey” Rhodes (Terrence Howard). While the comic-book Stark became captive of the evil Viet Cong commies, this one falls prey to insurgents during an Afghanistan junket to show off an awesome new Stark Industries weapon. The cave-dwellers want Stark — gravely injured by one of his own bombs — to build one for them. But if real-world insurgents were so dimwitted, our troubles there would be long over. They don’t notice Stark cobbling together a gray tank suit that makes for a spectacular escape.

Having seen Americans killed with the weapons he sells, Stark returns home with the realization that he’s been “part of a system comfortable with zero accountability,” and shuts down the weapons biz. Imagine a similar conversation taking place within the walls of, say, Halliburton, and you can see why Stark’s mentor and partner Obadiah Stane (a bald, bearded and nicely menacing Jeff Bridges) isn’t about to allow that.

The payoff of casting Downey is as big as the risk. He’s not in the movie, he owns it in a way that makes it hard to imagine without him. Likewise, director Jon Favreau may not have been an intuitive choice (uh, “Elf”?), but he allows “Swingers”-style banter between Stark and both Rhodey and assistant/crush Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) that deftly lightens the mood. Nobody’s a bigger fan of Christopher Nolan’s “Batman Begins” than I am, but they don’t all need to be Dark Journeys Through Stinky Grimtown. Favreau seems to know and respect the comics (and includes nods that fans will cheer), even if his pacing can be clunky.

It takes nearly an hour and a half before Stark is fully suited up as the familiar red-and-gold Iron Man. There’s your Origin Movie Syndrome. On the way to that, there are too many slapstick malfunctions while Stark’s creating the new armor that make it look like he actually runs the Acme Corp. And his sassy computer, Jarvis (the name of the Avengers’ butler), is like an annoying H.A.L. 9000.

From his blue-white glowing eyes to the repulsor rays that shoot out of his palms, you’ll want to see more of Iron Man immediately. There are three thrilling action sequences with seamless special effects and one not-so-thrilling. That’s not enough, and Iron Man doesn’t have a truly satisfying battle with a worthy foe. There are better reasons to wish for a sequel, but I’ll take one.

Mark Rahner: 206-464-8259 or mrahner@seattletimes.com