Marvel Studios’ Iron Man dominated the movie box office during its first weekend, at a near-record pace. Even more surprisingly, it has some serious thoughts behind it.

 Robert Downey Jr. in 'Iron Man'

As expected, the big-budget Marvel Studios release Iron Man opened strong at the U.S movie box office, bringing in $104.25 million during its first weekend, according to studio figures. It was the second-biggest domestic opening tally ever for a non-sequel film (bested only by Spider-Man). What makes the film’s performance even more impressive is that Iron Man is the first film ever released by Marvel Studios, a new division of Marvel Entertainment.

As is common among summer blockbusters, Iron Man has numerous spectacular action sequences and impressive special effects that don’t just strain credulity but shatter it into a billion pieces. But unlike many other summer releases it also has much more. Director Jon Favreau (Swingers, Elf, Zathura) has obtained superb performaces from Robert Downey Jr. (as the title character, mumitions magnate Tony Stark), Jeff Bridges (as his business partner, Obadaiah Stane), Gwyneth Paltrow (who invests her formidable skill and charisma in the character of Stark’s personal assistant, Virginia "Pepper" Potts), and Terence Howard (as "Rhodey Rhodes," military liaison to Stark’s munitions company).

As with the Spider-Man films, the people behind Iron Man devote a laudable amount of energy and screen time to a spirited and reasonably sophisticated discussion of the ideas behind the film’s premise. Stark is the genius son of a late, brilliant inventor who became the world’s greatest munitions magnate. The elder Stark appears to have had few concerns about the morality of his business–reflecting, it seems to me, a laudable (and long overdue) revisionist view of the Cold War on the filmmakers’ part, in which the Americans are now seen unambiguously as the good side and the Soviet Union and its satraps as an implacable enemy necessitating a strong national defense.

Tony Stark correctly sees the current threat facing the United States as dire, and the enemy as unwilling to be turned away through reason, bribery, or any other means except brute force. He is living the American Dream: doing well by doing good.

He comes to have serious doubts about his role in all this, however, when he is captured by enemy forces and threatened with death unless he creates for them a copy of his latest superweapon, using parts from weapons made by his own company. Of course, he gets out of this fix by using the opportunity to build himself the superpowered uniform-weapon that makes him into the superhero that comes to be known as Iron Man.

But the discovery of his weapons being in the enemy’s hands sobers the formerly happy-go-lucky Stark (his last name is the German word meaning ‘strong’). The experience of having his weapons on both sides of a war–while an evildoer’s dream–disturbs him greatly and makes him call into question the validity of his life’s work.

At this point, conservatives concerned about having a strong national defense will protest (as Peter Suderman did, albeit without much evident enthusiasm, on National Review Online) that the film is veering toward a pacifist vision suggesting moral equivalence between the United States and enemies dedicated to destroying us. They needn’t worry. Stark’s concern is valid: if his weapons are indeed the only thing that is making the violence possible, then he is responsible for it and must do whatever he can to end it. In this case the political is the personal.

But of course Stark’s weapons are not the only thing behind the violence. Before the current incident in which his weapons have been made available to the enemy, his latest superweapon showed promise of bringing peace soon by destroying the enemy without harming innocents.

Certainly such a peace would have been only temporary, lasting just until an enemy managed to obtain the same weapon (as the Soviet Union did with the atomic bomb) or a suitable counter to it (as the Soviets could not do with President Reagan’s proposed Strategic Defense Initiative, which ultimately led to the Evil Empire’s downfall). That’s the way it always works, as Stark would surely realize in time, given his intelligence and apparent grasp of history.

In any case, the process of devising an escape from his Arab captors gives Downey the idea he needs to solve the overcome the enemies both foreign and domestic. As always, freedom, entrepreneurship, and ingenuity enable Americans to overcome all obstacles. And as so often appears to be the case in real life, in Iron Man the main battle is actually between two factions within the United States. Far from suggesting that there is something fundamentally wrong with America or with the idea of national defense, this aspect of the story reinforces the greatness of this nation: we are so strong that the only worldly force that can stop us is ourselves.

Thus Iron Man is to be praised for a strong pro-defense stance and willingness to portray our current main enemies as Muslims. (Although the film does not explicitly identify them as such, it’s perfectly clear that these Arab-ethnic characters holed up in caves in Afghanistan are meant to represent Al Qaeda and America-hating Muslims in general.)

It is true that the main antagonist in the film is an American, but that takes nothing away from the fact that the people out to get us in the film are the Muslim terrorists. The fact that an American is willing to take advantage of the situation in order to increase his own power simply brings an interesting complexity to the situation, reflecting something rather more like the complex politics of the real world.

At its heart, however, Iron Man is a story of redemption. Robert Stark opens the film as an unregenerate hedonist (at one point he cheerfully greets former Playboy magazine publisher Hugh Hefner), but after his captivity in Afghanistan and the discoveries of betrayals at home, he begins to take life much more seriously, even beginning to suggest interest in a monagomous romance with Pepper. The parallel to pre- and post-9/11 America is clear but neither forced nor clumsy.

Casting Robert Downey in the role is thus an inspired choice. Not only is he a highly talented actor, and one who can play both the frivolous and serious Starks with equal convincingness, but he is also a real-life embodiment of the character, having suffered through drug addictions and then rebuilding his career to its current apogee. He brings to the role and the film both humor and something that looks very much like wisdom.

It’s no surprise that Iron Man benefits from impressive special effects and action sequences, but it is somewhat surprisng and pleasing that it has some truly serious ideas and characterizations and explores them with sincerity, wit, and sophistication.