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iron-man-jan-23In the Marvel universe Iron Man never achieved the super nova status of his comic book colleagues Spider-Man, the X-Men or the Hulk. He’s Freddie and the Dreamers, the rest are The Beatles. Expect that to change with the release of a big budget, big screen adaptation of the Iron Man’s origins starring Robert Downey Jr..

When the film begins eccentric, rich inventor Tony Stark (Downey Jr.)—the character was based on Howard Hughes, and the movie was actually shot in the same building where Hughes built the world’s largest airplane, The Spruce Goose—is in Afghanistan. After inheriting a defense company from his father, he has become mega-wealthy selling innovative weapons to the US military. He’s in the Middle East to demo his newly designed missile, The Jericho, for the Air Force. All goes well until the unit guarding him is overcome by the Ten Rings, a terrorist group who kidnap Stark—they call him “the most famous mass murderer in all of America”—after he is wounded with shrapnel from one of his own Stark Industries bombs.

Hidden in a mountain cave his captors demand he recreate his latest and deadliest missile. Instead, with the help of another hostage (Shaun Toub) he builds an iron suit of armor and makes a spectacular escape. Once stateside he has a crisis of conscience and vows to use his gifts for the betterment of man, not its destruction. He wants to offer the world more than “making things blow up.”

His newly found humanistic concerns don’t jive with his board of directors and shareholders, however, and after he perfects his high tech Iron Man suit he must deal with the backlash from within his own company and a dangerous foe in the form of Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges), his former second-in-command.

There are a couple of things that set Iron Man apart from the run-of-the-mill superhero movie. The big mistake often made by filmmakers when adapting comic books for the screen is to assume that superhero fans only want action, fight scenes and cool costumes. It’s true that these things are key components to any superhero story, but all the truly great comic book movies are character driven and the action must stem from the characters. Sam Raimi understood that when making Spider-Man. Tim Burton knew it when he made Batman and so does Iron Man director Jon Favreau.

He wisely chose to make character development his main focus. As a result the action scenes fit seamlessly into the story and don’t feel randomly inserted to help keep the film’s pace up or simply entertain the eye with explosions and bombast.

Superhero origin stories are difficult. There has to be a lot of information regarding how and why the character morphed into a superhero, but Favreau painlessly manages to bring the back story to the fore with clever use of dialogue and situations that don’t feel like exposition. I think Iron Man comic book fans will be satisfied and newcomers to the story will have no problem catching up.

At the forefront though, is a commanding and totally entertaining performance from Robert Downey Jr., who dominates every scene he appears in. His Tony Stark is charismatic, funny and smart—this tin man has a brain and a sense of humor—but best of all he plays off his own bad-boy reputation. Stark is a charming rogue, quick with a line—he’s Irony Man!—but there is always a hint of a deeper, darker personality lurking under his middle-aged good looks. This is the film that finally proves what so many have known for so long. RDJr can carry a big budget movie all on his own.

He does, however, get ample help from a strong supporting cast including Gwyneth Paltrow as Stark’s Girl Friday Pepper Potts—she and Downey have chemistry to burn—Jeff Bridges in a rare bad guy role as the ruthlessly evil corporate executive Obadiah Stane and Trevor Howard as military liaison Jim Rhodes. Each elevate comic book archetypes with skillful performances that round out the supporting characters.

I could have done without Ramin Djawadi’s intrusive and yet somehow dull score, but that’s a small quibble when the rest of the package is so enjoyable.

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