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Iron Man

A Thinking Person’s Superhero Film

After more than a year of hype, Iron Man, Marvel Comics’ first film under its new Marvel Studios offshoot finally arrives at a multiplex near you. Iron Man (a.k.a. Tony Stark) seemed like a risky choice for Marvel’s first, big-budget film. While comic book fans are certainly familiar with Tony Stark, billionaire industrialist and superhero, he’s flourished most clearly as the co-leader and co-founder of The Avengers, an All-Star superhero team.

Recent events in the comic books have taken Stark far from these roles (he’s now the director of an international counter-terrorism and intelligence agency, S.H.I.E.L.D. and, once not too long ago, he was also the Secretary of Defense), the film adaptation takes Tony Stark back to the beginning, but with plenty of tweaks to make him and his alter ego, Iron Man, palatable to contemporary audiences.

Iron Man follows Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) as he drinks too much, womanizes too much, and callously builds sophisticated, immensely powerful weapons for the Pentagon to use in developing countries. Amoral, self-absorbed and self-serving, Stark is all but ready for a tragic fall that, inevitably, leads to a redemptive character arc.

In Afghanistan for a presentation of Stark Industry’s latest, high-tech weaponry for the military, including his best friend and military liaison, James Rhodes (Terrence Howard), Stark is mortally injured and kidnapped by terrorists. Stark’s kidnappers save him, but only after another captive, Yinsen (Shaun Toub), a doctor, implants a device that keeps shrapnel from entering Stark’s damaged heart. Stark’s enigmatic captor, Raza (Faran Tahir), demands that Stark build a high-tech missile. Instead, Stark builds the first “Iron Man” armor, the Mark I from spare parts, and escapes.

Back in the United States, a newly invigorated Stark begins to work on the next suit of armor, the Mark II. With his executive assistant, Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), running interference Stark continues to update the armor, first learning how to fly via repulsor rays, one for each hand and foot, and later, how to use them as energy blasts. Before long, Stark’s renewed sense of purpose leads him to consider superheroing as a secondary profession. Stark’s longtime partner, Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges), only sees the profit (as in war profit) in the new armor and its related technologies. Not surprisingly, Stark’s newfound altruism conflicts with Stane’s old-school avarice.

Director Jon Favreau (Elf, Made, Swingers) balances the introduction to Stark and his world, the secondary characters who’ll play larger roles in the expected sequels, a strong, believable character arc for Tony Stark, a thoroughly villainous antagonist in Stane (albeit with too little screen time), and periodic doses of well-choreographed, coherent set pieces, meaning Iron Man doesn’t substitute an endless series of CGI-laden set pieces for character, drama, logic, or coherence (e.g. last summer’s Transformers, the forthcoming Speed Racer), with, alas, one caveat: Iron Man’s cramped, simplistic approach to contemporary events and politics. Once again, dark-skinned, swarthy Middle Easterners (Muslims, if not Arabs) have been made the villains. To be fair, the “real” villain in Iron Man isn’t Middle Eastern, but a weapons manufacturer with a neo-conservative mindset.

Iron Man belongs as much to Robert Downey Jr. as it does to Favreau, however. When comic book fans learned that Robert Downey Jr. had been picked to play Tony Stark, criticism erupted (e.g. he’s too old, he’s too short, he doesn’t look like Stark, he doesn’t have a track record, he’s never worked on an effects-heavy film), some of which, to be fair, was legitimate. Those concerns, however, were just that, concerns by a devoted fanbase who wanted a beloved character treated right. He is.

Downey Jr. is convincing as a man of contradictory, mixed motives, a genius with an over-inflated sense of entitlement, a shallow man in desperate need of spiritual, emotional and personal growth (mixed in with a dose of social responsibility). That Stark gets there convincingly is as much a credit to Downey Jr.’s talent as it is the script’s or Favreau’s direction.

The A-level performances don’t stop with Downey Jr., though. Gwyneth Paltrow (her character’s relationship with Stark sparks with romantic attraction tempered by mutual respect), Terence Howard, Stark’s conscience of sorts, and Jeff Bridges, who brings a sharp contrast to Downey Jr.’s performance without veering into cartoon caricature, all ably support Downey Jr. In the end, Iron Man is bound to join Spider-Man 2, X2: X-Men United, and Batman Begins as the best that the superhero genre can offer. There’s not much more we can ask for from the first blockbuster of the summer.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars