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Iron Deficiency 

Because I do not own stock in a movie studio, I never became a fan of comic book superhero movies. They are mostly about special effects. Their plots creak more often than glide. They are structured to yield progressively worse sequels. And even though I readily concede that some are satisfactorily entertaining — the first Superman, the first Batman — their major purpose is to make money. My attitude about this kind of popcorn fare didn't exactly send me out to see director Jon Favreau's Iron Man with a heart full of hope, but it did set me up for a bit of a surprise. How's this for a left-handed compliment: I didn't dislike it as much, and I wasn't as bored by it, as I thought I would be.

I may have no fondness for superhero movies, but I acknowledge that they are calculating and in that sense smart. They usually have the highest production values the industry can produce. They slickly attract significant stars to the cast. Christopher Reeve was unknown when he was cast as Superman, but he was surrounded by Marlon Brando, Gene Hackman, Glenn Ford and Trevor Howard. The underappreciated Michael Keaton was a surprise choice as the first big-screen Batman, but the rest of the cast included Jack Nicholson, Kim Basinger, Billy Dee Williams and Jack Palance. Iron Man successfully follows this same strategy, coupling star Robert Downey Jr. with Gwyneth Paltrow, Jeff Bridges and Terrence Howard, Oscar nominees all.

Written by committee, Iron Man is the story of electronics and armaments genius Tony Stark (Downey Jr.), who is as flamboyant as he is brilliant. He flies fast planes, drives sleek cars, drinks fine liquor and beds hot women. He also has a beautiful and astonishingly dedicated assistant named Pepper Potts (Paltrow) who takes care of his every need, including ordering morning taxis for Stark's paramour from the evening past.

Stark has just designed a new mobile missile system that has Osama Bin Laden suffering urinary problems. The missiles can be moved by truck and carry so many warheads that they are utterly indefensible. They also pack enough explosive punch to destroy whole mountains. Suddenly Osama's caves don't seem so secure. I know the devices aren't real (I hope), but I still found them terrifying.

Stark heads off to Afghanistan to demonstrate the new weapon to the American military deployed there, and the movie, barely begun, goes completely nutty. Stark is captured by terrorists who take him to one of their caves where they torture him for a while and threaten to torture him some more unless he builds the new missiles for them. Does he get a factory for this? No, he gets some space in the cave. Given that he's provided the materials to build an incredible explosive device (don't ask how — the movie certainly doesn't), is he kept under constant surveillance? No, because then he couldn't cook up his amazing escape plan.

The wily genius only pretends to build a missile. Instead he builds the first of his iron man suits, but probably not out of iron since the missiles he isn't building were presumably not supposed to be iron missiles. The suit kind of looks like Peter Weller's Robocop outfit, only not as shiny or convincing. But it does the trick, and pretty soon he's busting out of his cave jail. The terrorists' bullets bounce off his armor, and his built-in flame throwers (missile fuel, I presume) roast 'em and toast 'em till he's safely back in the U.S.A. with a whole new attitude.

Stark comes to his senses and realizes that weapons are bad and can be used by bad people to do bad things. So he wants his company to stop manufacturing bad weapons and start making something good instead. That peacenik stuff really irks Stark's partner, Obadiah Stane (Bridges), who has already gone over to the dark side and now has a keen excuse to go over to the darker side. This sets up what every superhero movie requires, which is the mano-a-mano climax battle. Stark soups up his iron man suit in high-grade titanium, so he's a hard-to-hurt dude, but Stane makes himself an even bigger armored suit (don't ask how — the movie doesn't), and the two go at it till the credits roll. The end. Preview of sequel. I am not kidding.

Thoroughly stupid. And certainly no first Superman or first Batman. But fun enough here and there, and Gwyneth has never looked lovelier.

click to enlarge Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) builds his prototype Iron Man suit. - 2008 PARAMOUNT PICTURES
  • 2008 Paramount Pictures
  • Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) builds his prototype Iron Man suit.
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