Downey Jr. makes ‘Iron Man’ live again

By Matthew Fagerholm

When was the last time a superhero was overshadowed by his alter ego? It’s difficult to imagine an audience preferring to see a film solely about boorish billionaire Bruce Wayne or squeaky-clean geek Peter Parker.

AP

Robert Downey Jr. is absolutely smashing as the titular super-robot in ‘Iron Man.’

But in the case of Iron Man, the real hero is the man behind the mask, Tony Stark. With his bitingly brusque wit, whimsically carefree demeanor and spectacular self-assurance, he is the single most engaging alter-ego ever brought to the screen. As played by the marvelously inventive character actor Robert Downey Jr., the unconscionable industrialist-turned-hardy humanitarian exudes such vibrantly deadpan comic timing he might as well be renamed Tony Snark. Best of all, his heroic mission isn’t born out of bitter revenge or a lack of self-esteem—but a primal need to right the wrongs of his life.

Iron Man opens with the alcoholic playboy demonstrating his latest arsenal of weapons to the United States Air Force in Afghanistan. His patriotic bravado is short-lived when terrorists unleash an attack, while taking Stark hostage.

When he discovers the terrorists have utilized weapons manufactured by his own company, Stark comes to terms with his life-altering responsibility. Luckily, his powers are up to the challenge—when the terrorists give him the materials to assemble a missile, the super-crafty Stark instead builds a suit that transforms him into a one-man weapon, armed to combat all manslayers and warmongers around the globe. The premise couldn’t be more relevant in today’s wartime climate, where the concepts of war profiteering and zero-accountability are constantly debated.

Much of the film’s success must be attributed to director Jon Favreau, who combines the humorous spectacle of Elf and Zathura, with the character-driven focus of Swingers and Made. The best scenes in Iron Man occur when Favreau simply allows his top-drawer cast to interact, instead of just advancing the plot. There’s a wonderful moment when Stark’s personal assistant Pepper Potts, radiantly played by Gwyneth Paltrow, performs a bizarre medical procedure on her boss that is remarkably reminiscent of the game Operation. The scene’s balance of tension and humor is complemented by the endearing screwball chemistry between Paltrow and Downey Jr.

Jeff Bridges casts off his Lebowski persona, bringing ruthless deviousness to the role of Stark Industries’ longtime top executive. Terence Howard and Shaun Toub are assigned the thankless roles of respectively being the hero’s “babysitter” and “conscience,” yet both characters emerge as more than one-note sidekicks. Toub is especially touching in the film’s crucial early passages, silently cheering on Stark as he rebels against his captors.

Once Iron Man gets around to the actual action, it’s great fun—for a while. Favreau thankfully doesn’t bother delving into any real explanation of Stark’s “arch-reactor technology” and focuses more on the exhilaration of hurtling through space. The film’s greatest comic chemistry actually develops between Downey Jr. and a robotic pipe that functions as a fire extinguisher when Stark is set aflame during the film’s tremendously enjoyable training sequence. Stark warns the robot that if it screws up, “I’m donating you to a city college!” There is a set-up and visual punch-line between Downey Jr. and the robot that literally brought down the house.

And yet, the film gradually loses steam as it heads toward a disappointingly conventional climactic showdown that lands with a thud. It’s a real letdown, since Iron Man himself is anything but conventional, and Favreau’s film has proven to be anything but a routine blockbuster.

Iron Man’s opening weekend gross exceeding $100 million is certainly good news for Marvel Entertainment, which is also releasing The Incredible Hulk in June. Yet the company risks botching its initial success by turning this string of superhero films into a cohesive franchise.

A teaser scene following Iron Man’s credits features fellow Marvel hero Nick Fury inviting Stark to join “The Avenger’s Initiative.” Stark will later have a cameo in Hulk. Are these films simply a scheme by Marvel to put their roster of comic book stars into one lumbering X-Men-style franchise, with Iron Man fighting alongside the Hulk? Such an overstuffed enterprise would surely sap away the humanity Downey Jr. and Favreau have so vividly created in this film.

Marvel had better take advice from Iron Man’s web-slinging forbearer. What happens when you allow character and story to serve the action? Spiderman 2. What happens when you cave in to fan-boy demand and chaotically crowded casting? Spiderman 3.

The inherent appeal of Iron Man is encapsulated by a line Stark delivers when he’s convincing the skeptical public of his newfound epiphany: “I can do more than blow up stuff.” Hopefully Marvel takes note of the fact that in the case of this exquisite super-picture, the man is far more fascinating than the machine.

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