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Iron Man   B

Paramount Pictures / Marvel Entertainment

Year Released: 2008
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: Jon Favreau
Writers: Mark Fergus, Hawk Ostby, Art Marcum, Matt Holloway
Cast: Robert Downey Jr., Terrence Howard, Jeff Bridges, Gwyneth Paltrow, Leslie Bibb, Shaun Toub, Faran Tahir, Clark Gregg.

Review by Rob Vaux

It takes more than a clever ad campaign to turn a second-tier superhero into a first-tier hit. Until this movie came along, Marvel Comics' Iron Man never had the springboard to launch himself into the elites. Spider-Man had better villains, the X-Men had a better hook, and both of them dripped with character and personality that he never quite found. He made a nice also-ran with the Avengers and his fatal flaw -- alcoholism -- gave him some distinction, but when push came to shove, he didn't have the right amount of snazziness to hit the big time.

Paramount has made extravagant promises otherwise, of course. The trailers and ad campaign for Iron Man's big screen adventure stand as some of the best in recent years, and even non-comic-book fans took a gander at Robert Downey Jr. in the lead role and got that Pavlovian tingle in their loins. The character needed a boost that big to get bums on seats, and I hope Paramount carves some big, fat bonuses out of the first weekend's grosses for their marketing department. The trailers just look so cool... but if the final product doesn't meet those expectations, all of it would be for naught. (Rise of the Silver Surfer had a pretty slick preview too, and look how it turned out.) The bad news is that Iron Man doesn't quite measure up to the pre-release anticipation -- more succinctly, it's not the single greatest piece of summer bad-assery ever to hit the screen like we were promised. The good news is that it's still pretty cool. A few lowered expectations and a tolerance for the odd slow patch will serve you quite well in soaking up the dependable fun on display.

It starts with Downey, who may be the best-cast superhero since Christopher Reeve first put on the Superman tights. Tobey Maguire, Hugh Jackman, Christian Bale... they're all terrific, of course, but they all needed to use a least a smidgeon of the actor's craft to bring their four-color roles to life. Downey? He just needs to show up. With Tony Stark, the man beneath that nifty metal suit, he finds an eerily perfect representation of his infamous public persona. Tony's a brilliant wunderkind -- rich, powerful, and owner/chief designer of the largest weapons development firm on Earth. He's also an alcoholic lothario, chronic narcissist, and self-destructive playboy seemingly oblivious to the casual withering of his soul. It's safe to say that the actor knows where this guy is coming from.

Redemption arrives in the caves of Afghanistan, where a band of standard-issue terrorists imprisons him following an attack on his convoy. The fact that they do so with his own company's weapons is not lost on him, nor is the fact that the shrapnel he took in the attack should have snuffed him out like a candle. But a local engineer and fellow captive (Shaun Toub) installs a battery-powered über-pacemaker that Stark soon upgrades to near-limitless capacity. When the terrorists demand that he build them a missile, he reluctantly agrees, only to transform their raw materials into a bullet-proof super-suit that lets him blow their camp sky high. Back in the States, he gives it all a cutting-edge upgrade, helped surreptitiously by his military attaché Jim Rhodes (Terrence Howard, cool as the other side of the pillow) and stalwart Gal Friday Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow, somewhat less cool). He resolves to turn over a new leaf, both in global terms (he wants his company to stop making weapons) and personal (the new outfit will let him put a number of wrong things right). Having watched his U.S. military bodyguards slaughtered before his eyes -- and others make equivalent sacrifices on his behalf -- he's eager to reclaim a lot of lost karmic ground. That doesn't sit well with his board of directors, unfortunately, including the sinister Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges), who can think of a lot more profitable uses for an Iron Man suit than just saving the world. And if he needs to kill Tony to do that, well, he's got a few cool toys of his own to help.

Director Jon Favreau approaches Iron Man the same way Sam Raimi approached the Spider-Man films: using his talents behind the camera to bolster the fact that he is first and foremost a huge fan of the character. His knack for improvised banter lets the four principles slip into their roles with effortless comfort. The casual, knowing way they bicker with each other instantly conveys the long friendship between Rhodes and Stark, for example, or Potts's mother-hen worries lurking beneath her brusque professionalism. Favreau maintains a light tone for most of the film, spiked with well-timed humor and reminding us that this is supposed to be a great big lark. Yet neither does he lose any of the character's darker threads. Stark stares into the abyss of a wasted life, using booze and women to hide from the fact that his company deals in wholesale bloodshed. Though the terrorists are uncomfortably stereotyped, they're not the real villains: that distinction is saved for the American conglomerates who arm them and the short-sighted policies that see nothing wrong with massive bloodshed as long as the people being killed aren't Yanks. Favreau never gilds that lily, but still keeps it firmly within the film's foundations. When coupled with Stark's initial complicity and eventual awakening from moral stupor, it gives Iron Man the right touch of edginess.

Things don't always proceed as smoothly as they could, unfortunately, and the pacing hits a few too many jolts at times. Though the first half stays true to the character's origins, it take some time to build up, and we wait longer than we really should for the arrival of the red-and-gold suit. The action scenes are solid, but they feel a touch too thin on the ground, and while the first two-thirds work terrifically, Iron Man settles for run-of-the-mill good guy/bad guy stuff towards the end. Product placement makes for some embarrassing moments as well (fabulously wealthy billionaires do not eat at Burger King), and an underplayed romantic subplot never hits the proper notes. Such slights can be forgiven, in part, because Iron Man has a little further to climb than some of its contemporaries. Favreau and Paramount clearly have grade-A ambitions for the character, and getting him there takes a little more work than it might for better-known heroes. Despite that, they still make the ascent with admirable skill. It isn't perfect -- like Stark himself, it needs some time to get used to the controls -- but Iron Man nevertheless sets Summer 2008 off with a reliably well-executed boom.

Review published 04.30.2008.

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