'Iron Man': Heavy Mettle, By Kurt Loder

Robert Downey Jr. is the best reason to see this latest superhero opus.

I much look forward to "Iron Man 2." Freed from the burden of backstory, it could be a movie that fully takes wing. Unfortunately, the new "Iron Man" — Marvel's first attempt at a wholly owned film franchise — doesn't, really. The movie is an origin story, and so before it gets around to a whole lot else, it must first introduce us to billionaire munitions genius Tony Stark and relate to us the details of his swinging, Bond-like lifestyle; his near-mortal injury and capture while on a business visit to war-torn Afghanistan; his wily construction, while in captivity, of a jumbo suit of flame-throwing, high-flying armor; and his subsequent escape, moral turnabout and commitment to fighting evil wherever it may be found. All of this is necessary, of course, but it's terribly time-consuming.

The picture has surprisingly run-of-the-mill digital effects — the usual fiery explosions and aerial athletics — and, in one sky-chase sequence, some particularly primitive smoke-pluming. What it does have going for it, though — and what saves it from the glum inconsequence of such earlier Marvel offerings as "Daredevil" and "Fantastic Four" — is Robert Downey Jr., who plays Tony Stark with the tossed-off wisecrackery of a great stand-up comic. ("Gimme a Scotch," he barks, bellying up to a bar, "I'm starving.") Downey also maintains a staunch commitment to the superhero narrative, with all of its inevitable implausibilities. (How likely is it that anyone could assemble a high-tech Iron Man suit in a cave, under the oddly uncomprehending eyes of his terrorist captors? Who cares?) And he makes Stark's vintage, Playboy-style hedonism in the movie's early scenes (his private plane is stocked with total-babe stewardesses and converts into a glittery disco at his command) fun to buy into.

Stark's traditional superhero flaw (his life is constantly imperiled by a vulnerable electronic heart) also allows Downey to bring some soulful emotion to the proceedings; and in this he is greatly assisted by Gwyneth Paltrow, at her strawberry-blonde loveliest, playing the mogul's devoted aide-de-camp, Pepper Potts. It's a cliché comic book role, but Paltrow infuses it with warmth and pluck. (She also gets off some good lines. Mocked in the morning by one of Tony's sleep-over sexual conquests, Pepper admits that she does do quite a bit of her boss's dirty work: "Sometimes," she says, showing the woman the door, "I even take out his trash.") In addition, Paltrow helps put across the movie's most inventive — and sexiest — CG effect when she reaches deep into Stark's mechanized chest to tenderly pull out his malfunctioning ticker.

It's too bad, then, that Terrence Howard seems over-qualified (at this point, anyway) for the part of Stark's Air Force buddy, Jim "Rhodey" Rhodes; and that the amiable Jeff Bridges, even fitted-out with shaved head and power beard, doesn't really seem dastardly enough as Tony's treacherous mentor, Obadiah Stane. On the other hand, Stark's gleaming red-and-gold Iron Man suit has an impressive presence of its own — although whenever Downey disappears into it, the movie takes a noticeable charisma hit.

Fanboys and fangirls, so often underserved by the movies made from their favorite comics, will almost certainly latch onto "Iron Man" as at least a serious attempt to transfer this beloved, 45-year-old character to the screen. Will they be seeing more of him? Well, when Rhodey casts a covetous eye on an Iron Man suit; when an ambiguous government agency called S.H.I.E.L.D. gets a late-in-the-game name-check; when Tony Stark keeps knocking back more whiskey than can possibly be good for him; and especially when his stirring final line cues a well-known Black Sabbath song, they'll know this to be a question that need not be asked.

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