Sky-high Fe: Iron Man ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

Robert Downey, Jr. forges a head.

The season of popcorn has now been officially thrust upon us with the release of Iron Man, the latest live-action “issue” produced from the seemingly inexhaustible stable of Marvel Comics superheroes.

This marks the fourth feature film and the second fantasy-adventure in a row from director-writer-actor Jon Favreau (Made, Elf and Zathura: A Space Adventure). Despite his growing list of director’s credits, Favreau the actor is probably still most recognizable for his role as the neurotic, lovelorn stand-up comic in Doug Liman’s 1996 cult film Swingers. Favreau also wrote the screenplay for that film, which means that you can credit (or blame) as being responsible for injecting the catchphrase “Vegas, baby, Vegas!” into the pop lexicon.

For his new film, Favreau turns screenwriting chores over to Mark Fegus, Hawk Otsby, Art Marcum and Matt Holloway; but those paying close attention will catch a clever visual homage to Swingers in the opening sequence, which takes place in (you guessed it) Las Vegas. Favreau has a cameo as one of the nattily attired security men for wealthy inventor/industrialist Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) who is in town to accept a recognition award for his ingenious achievements in the advancement of weapons technology. Stark is a cocky eccentric who enjoys the typical pursuits and distractions of a rich playboy, when not ensconced in the high-tech basement laboratory of his (movie fabulous) cliff mansion in Malibu. He is attended to by trusty gal Friday, Pepper Pots (Gwyneth Paltrow).

While on a junket in Afghanistan to demonstrate and promote sales of his latest missile technology, Stark’s military escort convoy is ambushed and he is captured by a group of terrorists, who then demand that he construct a crude prototype of his latest invention for their further development and use. Thanks to the assistance of a fellow prisoner, a doctor-inventor (natch), Stark instead constructs an armored suit with built-in weapon technology and jet-propulsion capabilities, which enables his eventual escape. You know-the kind of thing anyone can MacGyver just by re-purposing a few odds ‘n’ ends that you might find lying about…

Stark is quite shaken by his experience, and is particularly traumatized by the realization that the terrorist’s cave complex was chock-a-block with crates of weaponry labeled “Stark Industries”. He calls a press conference after his return to the states. Stricken by his conscience, he announces that his company will detach themselves from the propagation of the war machine and instead devote research and development to high-tech products that will be more beneficial to humanity (now that’s a “fantasy”). The scene reminded me of that oft-played newsreel in which atomic bomb developer Robert Oppenheimer utters his mournful epiphany: “I am become death, the destroyer of worlds” (which precipitated the anti-nuke crusade he embarked on for the remainder of his life).

This sudden and unexpected change in the corporate mission statement doesn’t settle well with Stark Industries’ longtime VP Obadiah Stone (Jeff Bridges) who thinks the CEO has gone off his rocker. The duplicitous Stone’s machinations eventually lead to his transmogrification into Iron Man’s first arch-nemesis, “Iron Monger”.

The film is thankfully bereft of the headache and/or vertigo-inducing f/x overkill one usually encounters in this genre (the reason I generally avoid the comic book inspired action flicks these days; chalk it up to the joys of aging). The action sequences are exciting and quite well done, but parceled out in just the right amounts. The emphasis is on character development, helped along quite nicely by a talented cast. Downey’s knack for physical comedy enlivens a hugely entertaining montage depicting the construction of his “new and improved” body armor. Downey keeps getting better, and despite the fact that he is not the first actor one thinks of as the “superhero type” he is perfectly cast here as the complex Tony Stark. You could say… the irony suits him well (insert groan here).

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