As a comic-book superhero, Iron Man is underwhelming. He’s an awkward mishmash of Batman’s technological smarts and Superman’s near-total invulnerability and flight powers, with no distinguishing features except for the ability to blow stuff up. This is what makes the “Iron Man” movie such a pleasant surprise: Rather than being a simple rehash of every other superhero movie, it proves that there can be more to the genre than explosions and neon-colored costumes (although both are here in full force as well).

Brian Merlos
“Talk to the hand.” (Courtesy of Paramount)

Much of the credit should be given to the great Robert Downey, Jr. (“Zodiac”), who plays the hero Tony Stark with biting wit and sarcasm. He proves that it’s not necessary for every non-costumed alter ego to be so brooding and serious all the time (cough cough, Bruce Wayne). Stark is an incredibly wealthy weapons dealer who can invent different bombs and rockets in no time flat, but prefers to spend his days driving fancy cars and hooking up with random women in his Malibu mansion. He’s a believable playboy in a field dominated by over-the-top dramatic superheroes.

As the film opens, Stark is cruising through Afghanistan with the US Army, having just given them a presentation on his latest weapon. In a twisted bit of irony, though, terrorists are able to take out his escorts by using his own weapons against him. Captured by a group of Arabian war nuts, he is forced to build them a destructive weapon of their own. Instead, he turns the tables and creates a robotic suit outfitted with jetpacks and rocket launchers that he uses to escape their confines. When he returns to the United States, he perfects the suit’s design and decides to only use its powers for good.

There are actually very little scenes in the movie of Iron Man fighting crime and doing normal superhero things. Director Jon Favreau (“Elf”) takes a different approach by making the film much more character-driven, focusing on the interactions between Stark and his cohorts. The excellent supporting cast includes Terrence Howard (“Hustle & Flow”) as Stark’s close friend and pilot, Gwenyth Paltrow (“Running With Scissors”) as his assistant and possible love interest and Jeff Bridges (“Surf’s Up”) as a bullish fellow executive at Stark Industries. Favreau makes a risky decision by relying heavily on improvisation for most of the dialogue scenes, but the effect usually works and allows the movie to break away from the rigid constraints of special effects shots.

Like a diamond, Iron Man is apparently so powerful that he can only be damaged by another, larger Iron Man. Unfortunately, the film can’t claim to be quite as flawless. Downey struggles when he’s asked to play any emotion other than quirky, and the pseudo-romance scenes between him and Paltrow tend to fall flat. The villains in this film are too generic to be memorable, and their actions are easily predicted, ruining much of the suspense. But does any of that really matter when the rest of the film is so much fun? Enjoy “Iron Man” for what it is: a few big explosions followed by a gripping dissection of the man behind the iron mask.

Iron Man

Rating: 3 and a half out of 5 stars

At Quality 16 and Showcase

Paramount

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