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Downey Jr. solidifies 'Iron Man'

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Published: Sun, May 4, 2008 @ 6:37 p.m.

Spider-Man. Batman. Superman. These are what come to mind when you think of superheroes. Others, such as The Green Lantern and Blade, seem to get the short end of the stick and fall into a ho-hum, second-tier category. Since his inception, Iron Man seems to have been part of the latter.

Consequently, moviegoers may be fast to write off the first movie adaptation of the arms-dealer-turned-superhero as it may be on the level of such comic-book film disappointments as “Daredevil” and “Ghost Rider.” But that couldn’t be further from the truth.

Much like the original “Superman” movie and Sam Raimi’s 2002 adaptation of “Spider-Man,” “Iron Man” is less about a superhero beating up bad guys and more about the man behind the suit.

The man is Tony Stark, played with top-notch precision by Robert Downey Jr., an MIT prodigy and head of weapons manufacturer Stark Industries. A snarky womanizer and celebrity, Stark and his business partner, Obadiah Stane (“The Big Lebowski”’s Jeff Bridges), couldn’t be more removed from the violence their weapons cause to the people they sell them to.

After giving a weapons demonstration in Afghanistan, Stark and his fleet of armed forces are ambushed, ironically by his own weapons. He is the only survivor and sent to build a new type of missile known as the “Jericho” for Afghani rebels. Needless to say, the only weapon he makes is a giant robotic suit used to escape from his captor’s camp.

Thus, Stark returns with a new sense of enlightenment of what his years of creating weapons has caused and tries to shut down his own company’s arms division. His board disagrees, locks him out and from there, the creation of Iron Man begins.

As an origins story, “Iron Man” removes itself from its Marvel Comics brethren by focusing less on special effects and more on character. Some fans waiting for Iron Man to rough up some villains may be disappointed as the movie spends most its time developing the relationships between Stark and his co-horts.

Fortunately, it’s a character with a story worth telling. Downey Jr.’s chemistry with Gwyneth Paltrow as his secretary and love interest, Pepper Potts, shows glimpses of the playful relationship between Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder in “Superman.” “Hustle and Flow”’s Terrence Howard is also effective and loose as Stark’s serious foil, Lt. Colonel James Rhodes.

“Iron Man” is the first big budget picture for “Elf” director Jon Favreau, which works both for and against it. Favreau keeps the performances loose and sharp, saving from the uptight feel of the first installment of “Spider-Man.” Sadly, he lets the film go off-course in its last act sacrificing its playfulness for a predictable “surprise” villain and the inevitable show-down.

All can be forgiven with Downey Jr.’s performance. Though he showed signs of his versatility in recent movies such as last year’s “Zodiac” and 2005’s “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang,” he truly comes into his own as Tony Stark. Some actors tend to get caught up in trying to play a superhero-type character, where Downey Jr. fleshes out Stark naturally.

Being the first of what will hopefully be a successful franchise, “Iron Man” can be absolved of its shortcomings. But if this is a preview of even better sequels, Batman and Superman better make room.

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