Summer Movie Showdown: "Iron Man" Review

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Robert Downey Jr. stars in this 2008 superhero film based on the Marvel Comics character of the same name. The plot surrounds Tony Stark (Downey Jr.), who as an industrialist and master engineer builds a powered exoskeleton and becomes the technologically advanced superhero, Iron Man.
3.5

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Summer Movie Showdown: "Iron Man" Review

-- Rating: PG-13 (brief moments of suggestive content, sequences of sci-fi violence and action)
Length: 126 minutes
Release date: April 30, 2008
Directed by: Jon Favreau
Genre: Action/Sci-fi/Adventure

In an age where squeaky clean protagonists tend to come off as phony and condescending, comeback kids and antiheros top the list of engaging characters. That may be why both the "Iron Man" series and its leading actor, Robert Downey Jr., are beloved by moviegoers across the globe. "Iron Man" is a story of redemption. The movie's protagonist, Tony Stark, is a billionaire playboy whose family stockpiled an unfathomable fortune by designing and selling innovative military weapons. He's arrogant, impulsive, and flippantly sarcastic, but he is also a world-class inventor and tech prodigy. Governments everywhere covet the technology created by Stark Industries.

While visiting Afghanistan for a demonstration of his company's latest missile, the Jericho, his military escorts are murdered, and Stark is kidnapped by a group of terrorists known as the Ten Rings. He survives death when a fellow prisoner creates a makeshift electromagnet to prevent shards of shrapnel from entering Stark's heart. Then, the formerly carefree billionaire suddenly finds himself being forced to build a new missile for the enemy. Although Stark initially considers his situation futile, his fellow prisoner, Yinsen, urges him to take action to make up for the devastation caused by his destructive inventions. The prototype suit he designs to end their captivity ends in the creation of the famous red-and-gold metal suit of comic-book legend. 

"Iron Man" is one of the most successful films based on Marvel comics, and that's partly because the movie boasts a slew of attractive effects and gadgetry in Tony Stark's personal laboratory. More importantly, the storylines are always modern and relevant. For example, Steve Rogers-better known as Captain America-represents an outdated model of heroism that's largely based on idealized patriotism and a do-gooder image. "Iron Man" tackles the other side of nationalism by questioning whether sophisticated weaponry is more harmful or helpful to society. At one point, the terrorist leader praises Tony Stark for creating a "masterpiece of death," while another insurgent greets him as "the most famous mass murderer in the history of America."

Robert Downey Jr. expertly captures the conflicting traits of Tony Stark. In one instance, he trades clever quips with JARVIS, an artificially intelligent computer system voiced by Paul Bettany that organizes Stark's entire life. At other times, he shares quiet, vulnerable exchanges with his faithful assistant Pepper Pots, played by Gwyneth Paltrow. Just as skillfully, Downey shifts into moments of remorse and atonement. In one scene, Stark watches news footage of a village being ransacked by his former captors, who are wielding weapons produced by Stark Industries. In the midst of testing his latest prototype of the suit, Stark makes a split-second decision to attack the terrorist group and liberate the war-torn village.

The US government's decade-long pursuit of Osama bin Laden is an ever-present backdrop for the film, which plays out as a lightweight, antiterrorist revenge fantasy of sorts. The government presence mainly appears in the form of Lieutenant Colonel James Rhodes-portrayed by Terrence Howard-who is a long-time friend of Stark and his responsible, duty-driven foil. The US army can't simply walk into enemy grounds and launch a counterattack without wading through dangerous political territory, so Iron Man does it for them. Throughout the film, Stark is condemned by various figures who detest the source of his wealth, including a young reporter he repeatedly encounters at public functions. The Iron Man suit serves as both a shield and a liberating force in Stark's life, moving him to accept the burden of saving the people endangered by his company's weapons. 

Yet, the movie isn't just about foreign threats. On every side, Stark is pushed and pulled by characters seeking to influence or manipulate him. A major antagonist in sheep's clothing is Stark's partner, Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges). He is a holdover from the days when Stark's father still ran the company. Stane resents Tony Stark's decision to stop developing weapons, but he maintains a position as a mentor figure to hide his traitorous double dealing. He proves to be an even greater threat than the terrorists lurking overseas, and the fact that he has total access to vast financial resources and military technology is far more frightening.

It's never been necessary for superhero flicks to be deep and thoughtful, but "Iron Man" shines because the screenwriters and director Jon Favreau know exactly how to balance fast-paced action with social commentary. An impressive cast of big-name actors with credible talent also helps. Paltrow is a lighthearted and likable complement to Downey as the content, but unsung backbone of the charismatic Tony Stark and his technology empire. If "Iron Man" has any gaping flaws, it's the limited character development of its chief villains. The movie relies on the overarching evil of terrorism to stimulate viewers and fails to deliver the kind of awe-inspiring wickedness that truly riles up an audience. Still, as an opening installment, "Iron Man" is effective at drawing fans into Tony Stark's pleasantly sarcastic world for the next mission.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5