Friday, May 2, 2008

Sock It to Shellhead

So I'm just back from Pepperland and what greets me at the multiplex? Why, it's the Summer Movie Season! And even though summer won't actually start for another month and a half, why stand on ceremony? Summer kicks off with an underpromoted little chamber piece called ...

Iron Man (d. Jon Favreau)

We all know the song:

"Iron Man, Iron Man
Does whatever an iron can.
Presses shirts, creases slacks,
Grills cheese sandwiches for snacks.
Hey there! Here comes the Iron Man!"

I may have misremembered that.

Jon Favreau's new film Iron Man is not about a man with the power to smooth the wrinkles out of cotton-based fabrics. Much to my disappointment.

Instead, Iron Man is based on the long-running Marvel comic book character Tony Stark, and his armor-plated alter ego. Created in 1963 during America's early involvement in the Vietnam War, Iron Man was Marvel's front-line combatant against the godless Commie horde. More so than any other superhero, Iron Man was steeped in the milieu of the Cold War; not even Captain America delivered as many right crosses to contemporary enemies of the good ol' U. S. of Archie. Back then, Cap was too busy with all the unreconstructed Nazis flooding the Marvel Universe.

But I'm sure no one wanted to make Iron Man as a period piece, so out go the Viet Cong and in come the more modern threat of Afghani insurgents, a band of whom ambush a U.S. military convoy escorting billionaire munitions dealer and technological whiz Tony Stark from the site of a recent weapons demonstration. Stark is horrified to discover that the very weapons he designed to protect American soldiers are routinely being turned against them. He, himself, is the victim of one of his own bombs, which blows a baseball-sized hole in his chest. His captors keep him alive, ordering him to build weapons for them, but left in a cave with all manner of material and equipment, Stark gets other ideas.

Soon, he has constructed a bulky gray suit of armor that fires rockets and flame. He escapes from the Afghani camp and once home, begins to modify his new invention, as well as the way his company does business.

As played by Robert Downey Jr., Stark is a mercurial wise-ass, casual in both his brilliance and his attitude toward others, especially women. He treats the deadly business he's in with cavalier sarcasm , until it all literally blows up in his face.

He's not a man who makes friends easily (or, possibly, at all) so he has only his Stark Industries inner circle to talk to and trust: business partner Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges looking decidedly un-Dude-ly), Army liaison James Rhodes (Terence Howard), and Girl Friday Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow). A stop-start romance develops between Stark and Pepper. Their scenes together, full of over talking and longing looks, are highlights in the film, even if they feel like they've been imported from a Woody Allen movie.

Director Favreau employs a number of different stylistic moves throughout Iron Man, cheerfully spicing up the basic superhero slugfest with comedy, romance, political commentary, and good old fashioned melodrama. His talented cast is equal to the challenge. Ironically (Ironically Man!), the only times he missteps are during fight scenes, none of which are very inventively staged. Considering the arsenal of weapons and powers available to his hero, Favreau should have been able to discover as much variety to the action as his star brings to his title character.

And Downey is nothing short of magnificent here; his performance raises the bar for actors trying their hands at superheroing. I'm looking at you, Tobey Maguire!

A post-credit coda hints at the direction a possible sequel might take, and as long as Downey is on board as the cool exec with the heart of steel, Ol' Shellhead will continue to be a welcome Summer Movie Season staple.

3 stars.

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