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Wednesday, April 30, 2008 03:21 pm

Suited up for fun

Iron Man sets the bar high, with topnotch special effects

Iron Man Rated PG-13 ShowPlace West, ShowPlace East
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Iron Man Rated PG-13 ShowPlace West, ShowPlace East
As of late the big question regarding Jon Favreau’s Iron Man hasn’t been whether it will please the comic geeks who are eagerly awaiting it but, rather, whether there will be any surprises left when it hits the screen. In a massive ad campaign to raise awareness of the character — not as well known as Marvel Comics cornerstones Spider-Man, the Hulk, and the Fantastic Four — new trailers and scenes from the film have been released with alarming regularity. I’d been starting to think that if I waited long enough the whole thing would eventually be leaked online by Paramount Pictures. Having seen the movie, though, I’ve decided that this aggressive strategy was the perfect approach: Favreau and company have heightened awareness but kept a few cards up their sleeves to please fanboys and newbies to the Tony Stark universe alike. Modeled after eccentric millionaire Howard Hughes, Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) is a billionaire playboy who’s made his fortune through a variety of scientific ventures, most notably the development and sale of high-tech missile systems. This man-about-town has the world on a string and sports a self-deprecating sense of humor that contributes to his appeal. Only his assistant, Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), sees the man behind this façade. Stark gets a sudden wake-up call when he’s taken prisoner by a group of extremists after demonstrating his latest weapons system in Afghanistan. Injured, with a piece of shrapnel lodged close to his heart, the industrialist is forced to make a weapons system for the terrorists by their leader, Raza (Faran Tahir). Stark manages to turn the tables on his captors, fashioning a crude suit of iron armor with which to shield himself as he makes his escape. Stark has a change of heart about how his corporation operates and the products it makes, and soon after his return he announces that Stark Industries will no longer be producing weapons systems. This doesn’t sit well with Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges), the chief executive who was minding the store in Stark’s absence. Soon Stark is seeking to modify his initial armor design, hoping to use it to help those caught in the path of the weapons his company has produced — a project that catches Stane’s eye and disdain. Favreau and his team of four screenwriters do their best to navigate the pitfalls inherent in films of this sort. The template is inescapable: The background and motivation of the main character must be provided and the birth of the protagonist’s alter ego examined in meticulous detail. The movie follows design this to the letter but has a great deal of fun with it; Stark’s prototypes and his experimentation with the Iron Man suit are fraught with mishaps, providing some welcome comic moments. The laughs are coupled with gasps of awe once the suit is perfected, and the fun kicks into overdrive. The firepower that Stark provides inspire wonders as well as empathy. As might be expected, the special effects are top-notch, and the flying and battle sequences are as slick as the main character. Though the final fight scenes are a bit hard to follow, earlier moments devoted to Stark testing the suit and getting encased in the armor are fantastic.
Although the movie is a technical marvel, it would have been an empty shell without the strong turn by Downey Jr. His transformation from capitalist to hero is made logical by the sincerity the actor invests in it. There is no over-the-top moment to signal the change, just a quiet new sense of determination that Downey conveys with assured strength. His performance is so strong that even though we know that Iron Man is nothing more than a digital effect, we’re fully aware that Stark is inside. Downey’s performance ensures that Stark doesn’t get lost in the million-dollar tin can. Though a bit long — the result of a protracted subplot involving the not-so-surprising villain of the piece — Iron Man is a film brimming with fun. Providing the sort of adult hero that those put off by the teenage sensibility of the Spider-Man movies will find appealing, Favreau sets the bar high, giving the rest of the summer-film roster a very hard act to follow.
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