01 May 2008

Iron Man

Iron Man

Let me get this straight: Having been taken prisoner by guerrillas in Afghanistan, with the resources and knowledge at his disposal to build from scratch one of the deadliest missiles the world has ever seen, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) decides to make his daring escape by building himself a big iron suit? I suppose you have to give him points for thinking outside of the box. It's also pretty darn effective, equipped as it is with flamethrowers, missiles and the ability to fly—sort of.

Iron Man, another Marvel property, doesn't have the instant name recognition of Spider-Man, X-Men, Superman, Batman or even Fantastic Four. That's about to change thanks to this film by Jon Favreau, which kicks off the summer movie season and should become 2008's first blockbuster.

Iron Man is nicely paced by Favreau and shot by cinematographer Matthew Libatique (The Fountain), but Downey is the key. He's not the prototypical actor for a comic book superhero; those roles typically go to young heartthrobs. He is an actor of intelligence who no doubt draws from his own checkered past to initially play Stark as a boozing, womanizing genius. Stark is the head of Stark Industries, the company he inherited from his father and the world's leading weapons manufacturer. Life is good for him. He cares little for the death and destruction in which his company plays a major role. "They say the best weapon is one you never have to fire," he says before demonstrating a new missile. "I respectfully disagree. I prefer the weapon you only need to fire once."

Stark returns from three months in captivity a changed man. He's seen the horrors he has helped perpetrate. No more weapons manufacturing for Stark Industries, he says. His quest is one of redemption, though those closest to him—his mentor Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges), his personal assistant Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) and his best friend, U.S. Air Force Col. Jim Rhodes (Terrence Howard)—think he's lost his mind.

Stark refines and perfects the design he used for his escape, creating a sleeker, shinier, more high-tech version of his iron suit. Soon he's flying around the world, battling the guerrillas now using his weapons.

This is an effects-heavy popcorn flick, but Favreau, working from a screenplay credited to four writers, never forgets the man in Iron Man. Though he is brilliant and rich, Stark is just a man with obvious "character defects," as he describes it. He has not come here from another planet; he has no mutant superpowers. His enemies are men, too, militant men who live in caves in the Middle East. This might be the most relevant superhero tale we have yet seen.

Iron Man is by far the highest profile outing for both Favreau, whose directing resume includes Made (2001), Elf (2003) and Zathura (2005), and Downey, whose recent work in wonderful films like Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005), Good Night, and Good Luck. (2005) and Zodiac (2007) has paid off big-time. With the major difference of the personal problems, Downey's career has been much like Johnny Depp's—adored by critics in quirky roles in interesting movies, but never breaking through as a draw at the box office. Iron Man could be his Pirates of the Caribbean.

Compared to other recent superhero movies, I rank Iron Man a notch below Batman Begins (the pinnacle of the genre) but on par with the the second installments in the X-Men and Spider-Man franchises. At the start of a season that will include The Incredible Hulk, Hellboy II and The Dark Knight, Downey and Favreau have set the bar high.

(Rated PG-13 for some intense sequences of sci-fi action and violence, and brief suggestive content. 126 minutes.)

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