Man-in-a-can movies are a small, odd subsection of cinema that, with clarity if little subtlety, speaks to the dilemma of frail mortals in an automated, mechanized, inhuman world—metaphor given flesh, so to speak, whether it's RoboCop, in which an enveloping machine-body gives a dead human his life and soul back, or Tetsuo: The Iron Man, in which encroaching metal skin robs what humanity a soul-deadened salary man has. From the classic and much-filmed adventure novel The Man in the Iron Mask to the hilariously inept Steel, a metal exterior both hides and heightens humanity.

Marvel Comics godfather Stan Lee, indulging the comic-romance and soap-opera leanings that helped make The Fantastic Four and Spider-Man so marvelous, brought all that philosophical folderol to Iron Man, the hero he co-created in 1963. When he blended pop-topical concerns of the day—Cold War anti-Communism in a presciently early Vietnam War setting—with Howard Hughes international glamour in defense-contractor/playboy Tony Stark, all the elements were there—"Fe" in particular, of course. And while the Iron Man mythos is less familiar than those of Superman (the ultimate immigrant, raised with heartland-America values) or Spider-Man (with great power comes great responsibility), it's resonant nonetheless: We are morally responsible for our actions, even when those actions are legal and sanctioned.

As in the original comic, Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) is in a combat zone on weapons business when a warlord sets off bombs, takes the injured Stark captive and orders him the to build a super-weapon. As in the comics, a chest-mounted magnet keeps embedded shrapnel from reaching Stark's heart and killing him, and a fellow scientist helps Stark create an armored suit with which to escape. But in two trenchant changes, the movie reveals that the explosives that felled Stark were from his own factory, and when Stark eventually comes home, he announces his company will no longer build weapons.

That goes down like iron cornflakes with second-in-command Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges), an avuncular viper who'd already instigated his own agenda. Meanwhile, Stark's personal assistant, "Pepper" Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), and his best friend, military liaison Col. James Rhodes (Terrence Howard), aren't sure what to make of Stark holing up in the basement lab of his ’60s-Saarinen mansion in Malibu. He's upgrading his powered armor, of course, and with the help of two AI assistants—one of them basically a big Luxo Jr. from the Pixar logo, the other a talking computer program with a snooty voice like KITT on "Knight Rider"—creates the red-and-gold super-suit we know and love. What else could follow but a metal-on-metal climax with an enemy wearing a giant version of the original armor?

The four leads are all ridiculously Oscar-recognized—Bridges alone has four nominations—and bring life and dimension to essentially a military thriller. Downey makes his emotional transformations satisfyingly right, and owns the screen whether as Stark or as Iron Man. And while director Jon Favreau (who cameos as chauffeur "Happy" Hogan) provides all your recommended daily dosage of adrenaline rush, this thoughtful actioner ultimately is less about the Iron than it is about the Man.