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Iron Man (Marvel Studios/Paramount, PG-13)

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Marvel has a history with crowd-pleasing summer action flicks, but when it comes to crowd-pleasing, this film goes above and beyond.

 

 

 

After blockbusters based on their characters and concepts brought billions of dollars into the coffers of studios like Paramount and Sony, it came as little surprise that Marvel Studios decided to strike out on their own, landing $525 million in credit from Merrill Lynch to produce their own movies based on their expansive stable of characters. That "The House of Ideas" would launch their solo efforts with Iron Man, based on a slightly lesser known character whose creation was wrapped up in the Vietnam War, was a bit of a gamble, but one that was well worth the risk.

Marvel movies succeed the most when they stick the closest to the source material, something that director Jon Favreau (Elf, Zathura) and his four-man screenwriting team do here. The action has been moved from war-torn Vietnam to war-torn Afghanistan, but the premise is the same: in an attack on the frontlines, multimillionaire weapons dealer Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) gets a piece of shrapnel lodged in his heart. His captors put him to work building a weapon for them, but instead Stark, with the help of fellow POW Yinson (Shaun Toub), builds a suit of armor that not only helps him escape but also keeps him alive, and he continues to fight the good fight as the metal-clad hero Iron Man.

At the beginning of the film, Stark is the epitome of everything most people hate about the rich, not only as a man who has made his millions off killing people, but as a playboy with a girl for every night of the week and his own private jet with the requisite hot stewardesses and stripper poles. He returns from his encounter a changed man, horrified to see his company's own weapons in the hands of the enemy and determined to set things right, something that doesn't sit well with Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges, smarmy as the day is long), Stark's father's long-time friend and his own number two.

Downey is a wonder as Stark. In the early scenes, he enacts Stark's rich boy shenanigans with devilish glee, but the changes that mark his return are captured with subtle moments, like the split second of rapture in his face at a bite of a cheeseburger when he finally returns to American soil. What keeps Stark likeable is the light, quip-heavy script, and the expert timing with which each line is delivered. The rest of the ensemble cast, packed with Oscar nominees and winners, certainly doesn't hurt either. Terence Howard does solid work with a slight role as Stark's long-time pal, James Rhodes, but it's Gwyneth Paltrow (as Stark's long-suffering assistant Pepper Potts) who nearly steals the show. From her first moments on screen, when she hilariously dismisses one of Stark's *ahem* overnight guests, her sarcastic wit is on full display, and it reaches a head in scenes of killer back-and-forth with Downey. The pair have immeasurable chemistry, making each scene they share together pure delight.

The action sequences are every bit as stunning as the acting, and just close enough to obeying the laws of physics to make it a geek's wet dream. There are also plenty of asides that will scratch the geek itch of many a comic fan, but the winks are sly and won't overwhelm those who are new to the franchise.

An interesting trick the film pulls off is that it eschews the simple black and white, good vs. evil conflict that is the crux of the superhero genre. Tony Stark is not a particularly good man. The terrorists, though malevolent, are not his real enemy. Favreau (who does double time here, with a cameo as Stark's bodyguard Happy Hogan) keeps things humming with just the right amount of action, comedy, and pathos. Marvel has a history with crowd-pleasing summer action flicks, but when it comes to crowd-pleasing, this film goes above and beyond. (At the screening I attended ended, the crowd didn't just clap as the film ended, they cheered. Loudly.) With phenomenal acting, a witty and engaging script, and thrilling action, Iron Man is not only the best Marvel film yet, it's hands down one of the best superhero films ever made.  | Jason Green

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