"Iron Man" couldn't have been made before the last several years. The special effects needed to make this happen in a convincing manner just weren't present. Also, the life experience needed by Robert Downey Jr. hadn't yet settled. Downey Jr., a recovering addict, is perfect as Tony Stark, the billionaire arms manufacturer who has a life changing experience that makes him use his brain and the technology that brain makes possible for the good of mankind.
So what? What makes this superhero different? It's edgier than many of the other comic films, with Downey giving "cool" a new definition. His character carries this film. It's clearly about Stark. And the superhero thing is about taming technology. This makes the concept of being a superhero more accessible for all of us. If all we need to do to fly and bat about cars is step into a suit, then sign me up and get out of my way.
Another element of this film that is worth noting is its political overtones. The Middle East is a problem spot. Bang. That's it. I've been begging the producers of the James Bond films to deal with the terrorists realistically for some time. The closest they've come was in "Tomorrow Never Dies" when Bond shows up at an arms bazaar somewhere in Afghanistan. In "Iron Man" the Middle Eastern terrorists are front and center. One indelible image is Tony Stark, beaten, half-dead, tied to a chair as terrorists huddle around him, faces covered, with guns visible and ready. This image is resonant of all those horrible terrorist webcasts that were made of hostages who were beheaded. When Stark lashes out and wreaks his vengeance, it is a cathartic experience for everyone, left and right alike.
And for those of you who haven't heard already, I won't ruin the fanboy surprise....stay until after the credits.