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Review: 'Iron Man'

| Friday, May 2, 2008

These megabudget superhero comics movies might seem, at first, like a license to print money.

It's not as hard to sell a story with a passionate, pre-existing audience -- especially with the past few years' mind-blowing advances in computer-generated special effects.

But it's also not easy to condense the entire backstory of a beloved comic book series that has run for decades, set it in the present, and try to give it some contemporary relevance. And the failures tend to fail big ("Daredevil," "Fantastic Four"), even by the low, low standards of summer popcorn flicks.

Thankfully, "Iron Man" -- while not entirely bulletproof -- is cast from a sturdier alloy than your average spandex-clad superhero.

Robert Downey Jr. is the perfect match for this complex, conflicted superhero. His character, Tony Stark Jr., is a scientific genius and sarcastic, arrogant bon vivant, like some unholy combination of Bill Gates and, well, Robert Downey Jr. He follows in the footsteps of his late father -- who worked on the atomic bomb -- as the world's foremost purveyor of high-tech weaponry.

He's a Vegas high-rolling, sexy reporter-seducing, all-American icon -- until a missile demonstration in Afghanistan goes bad.

Stark wakes up in a cave, in thrall to a ruthless warlord somehow armed to the teeth with Stark Industries weapons. He's given a choice: Build the warlord a missile, or die.

Instead, in a cave, out of scraps, he builds the first prototype of Iron Man, and busts out.

Back in the States, he calls a press conference, announcing that Stark Industries is going to stop making weapons. He secretly starts working on his next Iron Man suit, complete with artificial intelligence and flight capabilities.

But, oh, yes -- there are a few vested interests at his company who aren't pleased with the news. Luckily, the Iron Man suit, although built for peaceful purposes, just happens to be the ultimate weapon.

Director Jon Favreau ("Swingers") wasn't an obvious choice, and he seems more interested in dialogue and exploring the genesis of this self-made superhero than in the rather cursory action sequences.

Downey conveys Stark's planet-spanning ego and charisma, leavened with just a few glimpses of vulnerability and heart. He takes what's essentially a silly, implausible story and totally sells it. The real Iron Man isn't just an empty suit -- it's the iron will of a man who is determined to atone for his sins, whatever the consequences.

Gwyneth Paltrow stands out as Starks' personal assistant, and portrays their mutual, unrequited crush with a light touch.

Unfortunately, the trans-national, military industrial complex -- and its panoply of dark-skinned foreign insurgents -- is too vague and complicated a bad guy for what's essentially a popcorn flick. That is, except when it briefly manifests into the giant, clanking anti-Iron Man, Iron Monger.

"Iron Man" also dangles a ridiculous amount of plot threads from the comics, just begging to be explored in sequels -- and it shouldn't be too many summers before they're here.

Additional Information:

'Iron Man'

Rated PG-13 for action, violence and brief suggestive content Three stars

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