Before I launch into my review of 2008’s first summer blockbuster Iron Man, I’ve got a confession to make: I’ve never seen the point of Iron Man. Growing up a confirmed comic-book geek, my Top 5 favorite heroes were, in order: Robin (the Tim Drake version), Batman, Spider-Man, Wolverine and Superman. Compared to those outsized personalities, Iron Man always seemed a little sterile. To be fair, I missed the character’s heyday in the ’70s and ’80s, when the writing staff churned out such popular storylines as the “Demon in a Bottle” series and the whole “Armor Wars” event. By the time I started reading comics in earnest in the early ’90s, Iron Man was something of a B-list hero, an angst-ridden industrialist trapped in a cool-looking, but ultimately stiff suit.

I bring all this up, because the movie version of Iron Man accomplished something I didn’t expect: it makes this erstwhile tin man look like an honest-to-god superhero. From the moment Robert Downey Jr.-who plays Iron Man and his alter ego, brilliant weapons manufacturer Tony Stark-dons his gleaming metal creation for the first time and takes it out for a breathtaking test run, the dude is badass with a capital B. It’s been a long time (arguably since the first Spider-Man flick) that we’ve seen a superhero actually get to enjoy being a superhero. Films like Batman Begins, Superman Returns, Hulk and even the Spider-Man sequels have dwelt instead on all of the emotional trauma and mental strain that comes with dressing up in a colorful outfit and fighting crime. But Iron Man carries no such baggage; fueled by Downey’s live-wire performance, the film hurtles along as if it’s wearing the same rocket-powered boots that are strapped to the title character’s feet.

The plot is standard Issue #1 origin stuff: while showing off his latest weapon of mass destruction to U.S. troops in Afghanistan (updated from East Asia in the original comic), billionaire playboy Stark is captured by a terrorist cell and imprisoned in a cave deep in hostile territory. His captors order him to construct a powerful missile for their own purposes, but Tony-who was badly wounded during his capture and is hooked up to a battery of sorts to keep shrapnel from destroying his heart-instead builds himself a bulky suit of armor (complete with a flame-thrower and rocket launcher) and mounts a daring escape. Back on American soil, he decides to refine the technology through a hilariously disastrous trial-and-error process that’s one of the film’s highlights. After learning that his former captors are harassing innocent Afghanis, Tony suits up for his maiden voyage as Iron Man and, in the process, captures the attention of the world media, not to mention his country’s military brass.

Downey isn’t the only famous face in the movie, of course. Terrence Howard pops up occasionally as Jim Rhodes, Stark’s best friend and future comrade-in-iron (in the comics, the character takes over the mantle of Iron Man for awhile before becoming his own hero, War Machine), while Jeff Bridges is on hand as Tony’s vaguely sinister business partner Obadiah Stane and Gwyneth Paltrow returns from an extended hiatus to play spunky personal assistant/love interest Pepper Potts. Unfortunately, none of these actors have anything particularly interesting to do. Director Jon Favreau is well-aware that the success of the film rests entirely on his leading man’s shoulders and, in fact, there’s barely a moment where Downey is off-screen. That’s great news, because the 43-year-old actor is superb in the role; he owns the character of Iron Man in a way that Christian Bale and Brandon Routh have yet to own Batman and Superman respectively (although the upcoming Dark Knight should change that for Bale at least). In interviews, the cast has talked about how Downey essentially re-wrote most of his dialogue himself and it often feels like he’s coming up with Tony’s razor-sharp quips on the spot. He’s so good, his co-stars often have trouble keeping up with him, save for Paltrow, who scores some of the movie’s biggest laughs. This may just be the loosest, least-mannered performance the Oscar-winner has ever give-perhaps she should think about doing comic-book movies more often.

As entertaining as Iron Man is, it doesn’t solve some of the problems that plague a lot of first installments in comic-book movie franchises. Like Spider-Man and Hulk, it lacks a strong villain to butt heads with Stark and like Superman Returns and Daredevil, the storyline could have used some punching up. There are no plot twists to speak of (at least none that come as a surprise) and no real dramatic conflicts to drive the narrative forward. The movie also might have benefited from a stronger personality behind the camera; while Favreau is clearly skilled at directing actors and assembling an excellent technical crew to handle the production design and visual effects, he’s less sure-handed when it comes to staging epic action sequences. The final battle in particular falls flat, relying too heavily on blurry CGI and pointless explosions. That said, Iron Man’s twin assault on the terrorists and aerial dogfight with the U.S. Air Force are genuinely thrilling. All in all, Iron Man gets the summer movie season off to a rousing start. And while I’m fully expecting The Dark Knight and Hellboy II to top it, for now, this is the strongest comic-book movie to fly into theaters since Batman Begins.

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