Iron Man – No Small Marvel – 3 & ½ popcorns

By Michael S. Goldberger, film critic

Oh, that we might be bequeathed an “Iron Man,” a superhero for his times. Not so much for the extraordinary feat stuff, though it would be nice to have someone put a damper on terrorists, arrogantly reckless drivers and other lowlife scum. But what we really could use is some of that quality of character Robert Downey, Jr.’s champion exudes.

Tony Stark, aka Iron Man, updated and contemporized since his introductory appearance in the March, 1963, issue of Marvel Comics’s “Tales of Suspense,” pleases a humanitarian wish. Inheritor of the world’s largest manufacturer of weapons, the MIT grad, tech genius and ladies man has decided to rethink things. Call it a fit of conscience.

True, the awakening may be more of a fantasy than the flying around, the extraordinary strength and the remarkable intuitiveness. Imagine the world’s largest oil producer calling a press conference and announcing a change of heart. No more stranglehold, sez he. It just wasn’t in the interest of the commonweal. Well, that’s ostensibly what Tony does.

Of course, not everybody is going to be happy with the call to compassion. Which brings us to the meanies. While not compulsory to real life, despite evidence to the contrary in Congress, it is a fact going back to the Greek stage that villains are a most necessary element of successful drama. Iron Man’s enemies are eager not to disappoint.

Director Jon Favreau, working from a screenplay by Messrs. Fergus, Ostby, Marcum and Holloway, does a swell job of gleaning the tale from the source material. Translating the soul and impetus of “Iron Man,” he establishes an all too familiar context. It’s the Mideast. One minute bon vivant Tony is showing off a weapon, the next he’s captured.

Gosh, it looks awful gloomy…in a cave, all alone except for this equally genius, Dustin Hoffman-in-“Papillon”-looking guy, Yinsen (Shaun Toub). The terrorists torture our boy every so often. They want him to make weapons of mass destruction, probably so they won’t be embarrassed next time the inspectors come calling. They give him supplies.

Lesson #1 to the Bad Guys. You don’t give captives in caves the raw materials to make weapons and say you won’t kill ‘em if they produce. Tony knows the score. That understood, he gets to work, aided by the unselfish Doc Yinsen who, whilst previously saving his American friend’s life, installed a super duper pacemaker gizmo, a la Tin Man.

Shortly thereafter, the slime come to see why Stark hasn’t yet spun straw into gold. A nerve-wracking few moments ensue. Then, presto abracadabra, much to their awe, the first generation Iron Man debuts. In the tumult, Raza (Faran Tahir), the baddest of the bad, is scarred for life. So it only figures, along with a superhero, an archenemy is born.

Back in the good old U.S. of A., safe, sound and apparently well tumbled through the epiphany machine, Tony’s proves the most intriguing absence since Aimee Semple McPherson took her legendary flyer. Where was he? What happened? Save for ordering the aforementioned suspension of operations, the head of Stark Industries is mum.

What follows, as Tony sequesters himself in the lab to build generation #2 of his Iron Man contraption/outfit, is a geek’s ultimate fantasy. A symphony in dream and precision, the process is a kaleidoscopic mélange of metallurgy, math and computers. In symbolic counterpoint sit his prized cars, a Cobra the centerpiece, an Audi R8 his daily driver.

And, after much tweaking and a few crash landings, boy oh boy…what a machine! If ‘tis true that the automobile is an extension of one’s personality, then we need conjure Freud to assign a term for this exponential example. Red, silver and multifarious shades of glisten, as a salesman might claim, ‘This will make you a real superhero, son.’

Thus begins a dabbling in things courageous…for starters a few missions of mercy and some saving of lives. Meanwhile, back at the factory, there’s the politics of dealing with the board of directors, especially as concerns the hard-to-figure Obadiah Stane. The co-founder, with Tony’s dad, of Stark Industries, he is superbly acted by a bald Jeff Bridges.

Obadiah maintains the big stick policy that Tony has abandoned. There’s still money to be made. On a lighter note, outclassing the majority of her superhero love interest counterparts, Gwyneth Paltrow is sensational as Virginia “Pepper” Potts. Tony’s girl Friday and essentially the ignored lady who’s waiting, no one knows the little boy better.

The splendid Downey-Paltrow chemistry imparts just the right mix of banter and romance, complementing the pow, whiz, bang excitement of this stunning first volley in the summer action movie assault. And lest we worry our brains will be melted by such popcorn-munching razzamatazz, “Iron Man’s” intellectual mettle proves a perfect buffer.

“Iron Man,” rated PG-13, is a Paramount Pictures release directed by Jon Favreau and stars Robert Downey, Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow and Jeff Bridges. Running time: 126 minutes

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