By Steven Warren – Contributing Film Critic

Downey Jr.’s spark and snap strengthens exhausted superhero genre

PECS OF STEEL: Tony Stark (Downey Jr., left) unbuttons his shirt to show Obadiah his glowing "arc reactor" heart.

The blockbuster season gets off to a good start with "Iron Man," another in Marvel’s inexhaustible supply of comic superheroes.

Much of the casting is overkill, but Robert Downey Jr. earns his racing stripes as Tony Stark — the onetime boy genius who inherited his father’s weapons manufacturing firm. He believes Stark weapons are protecting our country and, by extension, the world — at least the good parts. He also believes in having a good time.

Air Force liaison, Lt. Col. Jim Rhodes (Terrence Howard), who is on good enough terms with Tony to tell him the truth, calls him "constitutionally incapable of being responsible."

Before a flashback — to fill in some exposition — we see Tony captured by rebels in Afghanistan. When we return, we see he was on a mission to sell missiles to the good guys over there. But now his captors, led by Faran Tahir, want him to build a missile for them.

Yinsen (Shaun Toub), whose function in the rebel camp isn’t quite clear, has saved Tony’s life by putting an electromagnet in his chest to keep embedded shrapnel from reaching his heart. Now he’s assisting Tony in building the missile.

Except that Tony’s not building a missile. He’s perfecting his own arc reactor technology with a device that will not only protect his heart but also power a metal suit — literal body armor — that makes him look like RoboCop on steroids. It’s only a prototype, but it’s enough to kick Afghan ass and get him headed back to the States, where he arrives at the movie’s one-third mark.

He’s a changed man. Not that we wanted him to change. Like Nicolas Cage in "Lord of War," as long as he had funny things to say, we didn’t care now many people his weapons killed. But now he cares and declares Stark Industries is getting out of the weapons business.

This doesn’t sit well with Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges), who built the company with Tony’s late father and whose expertise is more in business than science. He ignores Tony’s orders and continues selling weapons, but the full extent of his villainy isn’t revealed until the third act.

In the meantime, Tony, with his robotic sidekicks, has put the finishing touches on a polished version of the iron suit. And after a few test drives, he returns to Afghanistan to take care of business.

When just about everything else in "Iron Man" has been as original as this overworked genre can be, the climax looks like outtakes from "Transformers" and the like as Tony and Obadiah climb into metal suits for their final face-off.

Downey’s performance is worth seeing for its own sake. He makes the movie as much fun between action set pieces as it is during them. This is not one of Bridges’ best roles. Likewise, Howard doesn’t bring anything special to Rhodey.

Gwyneth Paltrow isn’t my favorite actress but she’s fine as Pepper Potts, Tony’s personal assistant who creates sexual tension whenever they’re together. She’s better in a supporting role like this than trying to carry a movie.

Jon Favreau as director? Let’s see, he starred in "Swingers" and hosted dinner parties on cable … He also directed "Elf," which was a pleasant surprise. But even if his resume doesn’t make him the obvious choice, he’s done a terrific job, keeping the pace brisk but unhurried, filling the screen with stuff that’s worth looking at and letting Downey be showcased to best advantage.

Will there be more "Iron Man" movies? To paraphrase Tony Stark, "That won’t be all, Miss Potts."

B Director: Jon Favreau
Cast: Robert Downey Jr., Terrence Howard, Gwyneth Paltrow and Jeff Bridges
Opens: May 2 in wide release.
1 hr. 26 min.        PG-13


Q Cinema, the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth and the Fort Worth Opera join forces to pump up the "Angels in America" hype that’s about to hit North Texas. ("Angles" is the FW Opera’s next production beginning May 16; and Kushner is coming in for Arts & Letters Live on May 21)

On Saturday, beginning at 2 p.m., you can check out the HBO-produced marathon screening of "Millennium Approaches" and "Perestroika" at the Modern.

Modern Art Museum-Fort Worth, 3200 Darnell St. 817-738-9215. May 3. Free — suggested $20 donation. For reservations, call 817-849-2154 or e-mail at

These articles appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition May 2, 2008.

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