ARTS

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May 6, 2008

Robert Downey, Jr., fights, smites, and lives again

Screw the iPhone. The latest toy on every geek’s wish list is sure to be the iMan. Trotting out one of its less well known characters—Spider-Man and the Hulk are so done—Marvel presents a surprisingly faithful screen adaptation of the Iron Man story that succeeds in an area where most other comic-book movies fail.

Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) is a multizillionaire engineering prodigy who owns a weapons manufacturing company and couldn’t care less. While on a trip to Afghanistan to show off his latest missile, Stark gets kidnapped by a group of terrorists who demand missiles of their own. Under the guise of compliance, Stark creates a metallic suit to fight his way out of their den. Back home, with billions at his disposal and a new moral compass, he creates a much more advanced suit to fight the terrorists who tried to do him in.

Iron Man is a unique superhero movie, especially in terms of what its hero symbolizes. The movie paints Stark in the opening scenes as a die-hard, if booze-addled, patriot. And not just any patriot—Stark is an American patriot, and at times a stand-in for American policy in the Middle East. “Peace means having the biggest stick,” Stark tells a reporter, adding that weapons development is the most important of all possible research. True to life, when Stark is captured, he is vilified as a mass murderer for providing the tools for so much destruction. Even after he develops some sort of morality, Stark still echoes interventionist American sentiments, flying halfway across the world to fix the messes he helped create. Stark is unlike most other superheroes; he’s not defending his city or his damsel in distress. He’s defending America.

Director Jon Favreau is smart enough to tamp down these political messages by the time the movie gets into its second hour, letting Iron Man stand out as the funniest comic-book movie to date—not counting the unintentional hilarity of the original Superman’s dated special effects or Ben Affleck’s so-called “acting” in Daredevil. Downey gives Stark a natural, carefree quality that fits right in with his blatant pre-capture drinking and womanizing. He adds another layer with his wry, deadpan, and—from what I’ve been told—improvised remarks. Whether he’s cracking wise to his personal assistant (Gwyneth Paltrow) or coming up with comebacks to his foes, Stark and his endearing aloofness are always at the ready for a battle of wits.

The movie’s laughs don’t stop at Downey’s wordplay, however. Favreau has a good eye for slapstick and puts it to good use. Punctuating almost every action sequence is some sort of physical-comedy coda. When Stark makes his escape from his Afghan cave, we’re treated to a slasher flick POV shot from inside the suit, replete with terrorists running scared every which way. Later, when a baddie tries to shoot at Stark, his bullet ricochets off the suit and blows through his own head. The development of Stark’s suit in particular is a well mixed blend of verbal and physical humor.

However, Favreau has a hard time reconciling Downey’s clear talent for repartee with the need for dramatic fight sequences—a requirement of any comic-book movie. Much like Superman Returns, Iron Man focuses less on the hand-to-hand combat and exciting battles than most other superhero movies. At least half of the film is spent developing a plot line involving Stark Industries’s second-in-command Obadiah Stane’s (Jeff Bridges) plot to take over the company and Stark’s testing and retooling of the suit. While Bridges does a fine job hamming it up as a super villain and the hour or so spent with Stark in his lab are funny and insanely cool, the superb execution of what fight scenes do make their way into the film leaves a sense of how much more the talented special effects artists could have done.

Leaving Stark and his toys at “insanely cool” doesn’t really do those scenes justice. One-upping the awe factor of Minority Report’s futuristic touch-screen technology, Stark develops a 3-D hologram that he can manipulate by touch, along with a dozen other gizmos and gadgets shiny and advanced enough to make even the well equipped geek drool.

The biggest gadget of all, of course, is the suit itself. A very striking mix of primary colors, Iron Man has much to admire: built-in rocket boosters, missiles, “repulsor rays,” and a nifty heads-up display that makes fighting crime look like playing a video game. The camera lingers over the suit as Stark puts it on—or rather, like the carefree billionaire he is, has robots put it on him—taking note of each glimmering rivet, angled just so as to capture the maximum amount of gleam. When Iron Man takes to the skies, just watching him glide around is a visceral experience. This is gadget porn at its finest.

Even though it hiccups toward the end with an attempt at a romantic subplot with Paltrow—which feels labored given Stark’s established playboy attitudes—Iron Man emerges as one of the most engaging and polished comic-book adaptations of recent years. With all of the backstory now out of the way, there’s plenty of room for action in the inevitable sequel, hopefully with a larger part from a certain actor’s brief cameo appearance after the credits.