Superheroes have been young, mutated, and alien, but they're rarely fortysomething billionaires with a taste for one-night-stands, metallurgy, and scotch. Perhaps this is why "Iron Man" is so effective, taking well-worn feats of courage and subverting the candied results with a pinch of adulthood and plenty of acidic humor. The feature doesn't quite leap off the screen, but it's a wonderful ride.
A brazen war profiteer overseeing his own weapons industry, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) is pushed to reassess his life when violently taken hostage in the Middle-East and fitted with a powerful magnet-like device to keep shrapnel out of his vital organs. Hoping to abandon the mass-death game, Tony turns inward, creating an intelligent suit of armor that he trusts will assist him in reclaiming the world he's helped tear apart. With the help of faithful assistant Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) and military pal Jim Rhodes (Terrence Howard), Stark works to perfect his suit; however, when business partner Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges) learns of Stark's ambitions, he sets in motion a plan to harvest the playboy's new powers for himself.
Downey Jr.? Paltrow? Bridges? Howard? A voice cameo by Paul Bettany? Well, director Jon Favreau was certainly doing his homework when stitching together his fourth filmmaking effort, "Iron Man." Easily the best ensemble to hand-hold a funny book to the big screen, the cast makes all the difference in the world between "Iron Man" sinking into medium-awareness mediocrity and smashing ahead as a top-tier adaptation, capable of big summer-movie thrills and sharp, sarcastic laughs. It's a strange brew, but Favreau is an ideal cook, and takes impressive command over this strange superhero property, pulling together an unexpected film that intends to play by caped, hands-on-hips standards, but has a much better time messing around with convention.
Stark isn't the typical character for a comic book metamorphosis, and Downey Jr. is certainly not the first actor that springs to mind when considering the tenets of truth and justice; yet the crooked casting works in favor of "Iron Man." Downey Jr. is a scream here as the blithe Stark, lording over his empire with a boozy grin; a womanizer with impeccable publicity and a constant circle of yes men, Downey Jr. does an impressive job humanizing Stark beyond the frown lines. His character arc is an intriguing one, taking Stark from a coin-hungry jet-setter to a man concerned with his legacy of violence, and willing to reach beyond himself to right his extensive wrongs. Stark is no saint, and his ballooned ego is a plot point Downey Jr. tees up with brilliantly, playing off his cast with rat-pack ease, and sharing touching chemistry with Paltrow. He's perfect in this role.
Because "Iron Man" is an origin tale, Favreau tries to unearth any moment of goosebumpy goodness he can find between exposition sequences, but the pickings are slim. Following Stark through his incarceration in Afghanistan, his renunciation of industrialism, and the creation of the famous red and gold suit, the picture is allowed short bursts of excitement and, heavens, they are tremendous moments. Watching Stark test his various suits, getting used to their spastic capabilities are the highlights of the picture, merging special effects and generous actor beats into an entertaining whole. Trouble only arrives when Favreau becomes too enamored with this world, which leaves the 125-minute running time too sludgy in the midsection of the film, rendering the climatic fight between Iron Man and villain Iron Monger stunningly ineffective. Perhaps Favreau, a gifted director, didn't realize how sharply executed Stark's earlier scenes of trial and error were, leaving the end of the film a payoff letdown, but still worthy of a few superb metal-crunching money shots.
If the enthusiastic crowd I caught "Iron Man" with was any indication, there are plenty of obscure comic book references packed into the picture to please long-standing fans, while the overall film remains more accessible than I was expecting. "Iron Man" is a high-quality entry in the superhero genre, and while it doesn't scream sequel at the end, Favreau is generous with dangling plot threads, and with all that origin nonsense out of the way, Tony Stark is poised to continue on into one heck of a sequel.
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