Wealthy industrialist and weapons-maker Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) puts his genius to heroic use as "Iron Man."
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In the canons of superhero origin movies, "Iron Man" proves its mettle with steely resolve and a lot of fun.
Although a completely conventional genre entry with a requisite glut of slick special effects, titan confrontations and light comic-book characters, "Iron Man" blasts into the superhero stratosphere with Jon Favreau's polished direction, a comically crackling screenplay and Robert Downey Jr.'s intense, superbly rendered portrait of a death merchant resurrected as a defender of justice.
Back in the 1960s, Marvel Comics creator Stan Lee broke the mold when he developed Iron Man and his alter-ego Tony Stark. Stark wasn't a kid or young man trying to find himself; he was a middle-aged, committed capitalist with a faulty heart muscle.
Stark also ran against the mainstream grain as a zillionaire weapons contractor for the U.S. government, hardly the background for a standard-issue superhero.
This update -- co-written by the duo (Mark Fergus and Hawk Ostby) -- responsible for scripting the excellent futuristic drama "Children of Men" -- brings Stark into the 21st century as a hedonistic genius, Hugh Hefner merged with Howard Hughes.
On a trip to sell super weapons in Afghanistan, Stark (played with sarcastic bombast by Downey) gets ambushed and taken prisoner by a generically evil terrorist named Raza (Faran Tahir). You know he's evil because he smokes cigarettes.
Raza wants Stark to develop super weapons for him.
Instead, Stark, with help from a prisoner named Yinsen (Shaun Taub), creates a prototype exo-skeleton, sort of like Gort meets RoboCop.
Stark escapes from Raza's prison only because Yinsen sacrifices himself. His final words: "Don't waste your life." Back home in the States, an enlightened Stark realizes that his company has been shipping arms to the enemy for greater profits, and announces that Stark Industries will no longer be in the death merchant business.
This doesn't sit well with Stark's partner, Obadiah Stane, played by a bald Jeff Bridges like a twisted, bewhiskered version of Daddy Warbucks without Little Orphan Annie around to bring out his sunny side.
Stane adores profits, and tries to convince Stark to listen to reason.
Instead, Stark sets out to perfect the metal alloy gear he created in Afghanistan, and his slow evolution into Iron Man forms the nucleus of Favreau's action-packed adventure. Aided by an interactive robot intelligence named Jarvis, Stark develops and tests his hovering super suit in comic fits and starts.
As his alloy wardrobe gets defined and refined, so does his conscience. "I finally know what I need to do," he says.
Iron Man becomes reality.
No penny-ante Batman stuff like chasing robbers and muggers for Iron Man. Instead, he goes after Raza and his terrorists.
There's an obvious wish-fulfillment element to witnessing Stark lay waste to the Middle East baddies.
(Iraq doesn't enter this scenario.)
There's also a breezy allusion to the epitome of Reagan-era action films, "Top Gun," with Iron Man jetting along at super-sonic speed while tangling with interceptor U.S. fighter jets.
The climax of "Iron Man" showcases some pulsating editing and sophisticated special effects, but the showdown between Stane's "Iron Monger" creation and Stark's sleeker, smaller superhero at best echoes a scene out of "Transformers," and at worst, the ending of "RoboCop II."
Gwyneth Paltrow brings more depth and allure to Stark's red-headed, right-hand woman, Pepper Potts, than has been written into the role. Not so with Terrence Howard, stuck with the cardboard-thin Lt. Colonel Rhodes of the U.S. Air Force, a perfunctory character brought in to help out at key transitional moments.
Leslie Bibb scores a memorable role as a hot Vanity Fair reporter, depicted as an unethical harlot willing to hop in the sack with a source.
It's Downey who anchors the movie's mayhem and special effects with a caustic wit and an intense, centered humanity. His textured, quick and commanding performance propels his movie to the top of the superhero origin genre, and should make it an iron-clad hit.
3½ stars (out of 4)
Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, Terrence Howard, Jeff Bridges.
Directed by: Jon Favreau.
Other: A Paramount Pictures release. Rated PG-13 for violence. 126 minutes.