Robert Downey Jr.
Directed by Jon Favreau, Iron Man was released in 2008, only a month before The Incredible Hulk, and it marked the official beginning of Marvel's Cinematic Universe. After some time away from the limelight, Robert Downey Jr. was cast as Tony Stark and the rest is history.
This was a big, expensive gamble for Marvel and, had it not paid off, it's unlikely that much would have stemmed from it. Luckily, Iron Man was a significant hit that, not only kick-started one of the biggest cinematic franchises ever, but revived Robert Downey Jr.'s career fully, pushing the actor's popularity to stellar levels. While the story in the film is pretty self-contained, it does plant a few major seeds (S.H.I.E.L.D., War Machine) and, of course, Tony Stark would, soon after, cameo in The Incredible Hulk so Marvel were already very determined to build towards an Avengers movie and Iron Man certainly set the standard.
The plot of the film sees Tony Stark, the cocky owner of defense contractor Stark Industries, get kidnapped by a terrorist group in Afghanistan where he is forced to face a few uncomfortable truths about his own company while trying to survive. During this ordeal, he loses a friend but develops an arc reactor to keep himself alive and power a state-of-the-art Iron Man suit, as you do.
The storytelling here is straight-forward but effective: Jon Favreau balances character development, action sequences and humour in an effortless way, giving the film a refreshingly breezy and light-hearted, yet clever and witty, tone inspiring subsequent Marvel outings, with the exception of the slightly grumpier The Incredible Hulk which had the misfortune to be shot at the same time. Robert Downey Jr. is simply perfect as Tony Stark. He embodies the nonchalant genius aspect of the character with ease and he balances Stark's inherent flaws with so much charm that you can't help but be on the billionaire playboy's side no matter what.
Gwyneth Paltrow is very likeable as Stark's assistant/love interest Pepper Potts and Jeff Bridges clearly has a ball as the intimidating, and rather amusing, villain Obadiah Stane. Terrence Howard was also well cast as Stark's friend Rhodey but the role was eventually handed to Don Cheadle, who made it his own. This is one of those few superhero movies where everything gels to create not just a worthy comic-book to film adaptation but a genuinely good blockbuster as well.
Iron Man was, and it remains, a slick, funny and hugely entertaining action film with tons of charm and personality, some pitch-perfect special effects and a ground-breaking approach to the superhero genre in cinema. This is one of Marvel's all-time best movies and it still very much holds up.