Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man is a thing to marvel at

Chalk it up to personal preference, but I've always been fonder of those comic-book heroes who emerge by intent rather than happenstance. Like Bruce Wayne, whose transformation from average Joe into masked crusader is an act of will instead of the unintended result of a genetic mutation, a spider bite, or a meteor ride to Earth; the ones who, underneath the metallic breastplates and layers of spandex, remain ordinary bone and sinew.

Tony Stark, the unlikely hero of the Iron Man comics, is one such creation. A boy-genius inventor and heir to a weapons-manufacturing empire, Stark initially conceives of his crime-fighting alter-ego in an act of life-saving self-preservation, donning a makeshift suit of rocket-powered armor in order to escape from the bad guys who've abducted him during a Stark Industries field test. Nothing if not a product of his foreign-policy moment, Stark first appeared in the March 1963 issue of Marvel's Tales of Suspense, just in time to fight the encroaching Red menace in Southeast Asia. In the 2008 film version of Iron Man, directed by Jon Favreau, Stark finds himself at odds with Afghan insurgents called the Ten Rings who come armed with a black-market supply of Stark's war machines.

Stark was based in part on Howard Hughes; the 21st-century version embodied by Robert Downey Jr. is more like a defense-industry Mark Cuban or Richard Branson — a media-savvy technocrat whose too-cool-for-the-planet attitude says that as long as the market is up and we're kicking Hadji's ass, it doesn't much matter how we're doing it. But Stark soon gets his comeuppance and he realizes that maybe WMDs aren't so great after all. Not that Stark's subsequent decision to dismantle the family business's most profitable arm goes over very well with his board of directors or his longtime business partner, Obadiah Sane (Jeff Bridges).

I. Am. Iron. Man: Robert Downey Jr. sees in Iron Man an allegory of his own rehab.
I. Am. Iron. Man: Robert Downey Jr. sees in Iron Man an allegory of his own rehab.

Details

Directed by Jon Favreau. Written by Mark Fergus, Hawk Ostby, Art Marcum, and Matt Holloway. Starring Robert Downey Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, Jeff Bridges, and Terrence Howard. Rated PG-13.

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Though he remains best known for writing and co-starring in 1996's hipster totem Swingers, Favreau honed his directing chops with a couple of richly imaginative, resolutely lo-fi kids movies, Elf and Zathura. If Iron Man never quite ascends to those heights of tinsel-and-string splendiferousness, it maintains Favreau's fondness for the handmade over the prefab. It's an exemplary comic-book fantasia. There's plenty of CGI to go around, but Favreau uses it to enhance rather than supplant the movie's physical dimension. Stark's initial, scrap-metal Iron Man exoskeleton, in fact, looks like nothing so much as the love child of L. Frank Baum's Tin Man and Klaatu from The Day the Earth Stood Still, and it moves with the staccato rhythms of the stop-motion animated robots from the first RoboCop film.

When Stark returns to his sprawling Malibu mansion/laboratory to perfect the prototype, Favreau gives the sequence slapstick ping. And Downey is a marvel to watch, his body a shimmying human Jell-O mold as he tries to get the hang of his newly jet-propelled hands and feet, his face a kaleidoscope of exhilaration and terror. He's like a kid without training wheels, but also like a man newly resolved to make something meaningful out of his life. More than once in Iron Man, you get the feeling the actor may have seen, in Tony Stark, a seriocomic surrogate for his own very public rehabilitation.

The movie uses the better part of an hour to really get going. Rather than cutting directly to the chase, it takes its time to involve us in the characters, who are relatively three-dimensional as comic-book movies go, and are played by the kind of actors who know how to make a lot out of not very much. As Stark's dutiful girl Friday, Pepper Potts, Gwyneth Paltrow is appealing, while the ever-reliable Bridges manages to invest a glimmer of conflicted humanity in a role that all but comes with "Villain" stamped on its forehead. Even when the plot of Iron Man kowtows to convention, the movie's personality keeps it zipping along. Rarer than a grown man in a rocket suit, it's a summer blockbuster that comes to entertain first and shill second.

Just about a year ago at this time, another summer tent-pole that climaxed with giant robots body-slamming each other on the streets of Los Angeles was making its way into cinemas. Where Transformers' Michael Bay has mastered a kind of sensory-assaulting pop art, Favreau is a born storyteller who engages the audience's imagination rather than crushing it in a tsunami of digital noise. He gives us giant robots we can actually care about as opposed to those we can scarcely tell apart — and that, I would propose, is the difference between making images and making movies.

 
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