'Iron Man' Shows Strength of Character

He knows about ups and downs: Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark, the weapons maker who transforms himself into the Iron Man after he's injured.
He knows about ups and downs: Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark, the weapons maker who transforms himself into the Iron Man after he's injured. (By Zade Rosenthal -- Paramount Pictures Via Associated Press)
By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 2, 2008

It's difficult to imagine a better actor-character fit than that between Robert Downey Jr. and Iron Man, the superhero who, out of all of comic book writer Stan Lee's creations, probably possesses the darkest of dark sides. Like Downey himself, Iron Man, a.k.a. Tony Stark, has addiction issues; like Downey, the wealthy, hard-partying weapons dealer has had his ups and downs, by turns reveling in and suffering from the blandishments of privilege.

So it's easy to see why, as "Iron Man" opens, with Downey nursing a Scotch and talking a mile a minute in the back of a Humvee racing through the dunes of Kunar province, Afghanistan, he's greeted with whoops of approval by the audience long before he dons the distinctive red-and-gold metal suit of Tony's superheroic avatar.

But those whoops are quickly squelched when "Iron Man" gets down to the business of creation myth, which here is shifted from Cold War-era Vietnam to Bush Doctrine-era Afghanistan. Things go badly awry in Kunar, and for at least a half an hour the film is veritably action-free, as the badly injured Tony is taken prisoner by a provincial warlord who orders him to build a state-of-the-art weapon. Instead Tony, who has been outfitted by a fellow prisoner with a battery-powered device to keep his heart beating, builds a suit out of iron, the better to bust out of the cave and give his swarthy enemies a beat-down.

That initial confrontation possesses some requisite cathartic thrills and moments of tough-guy humor (a bullet playfully pinging off of Stark's armor when he's shot at close range), but it turns out to be a false start. The real Iron Man doesn't emerge until Stark is back in California, where he perfects the prototype -- in a series of amusing vignettes involving his robot assistants -- into the sleek flying hood ornament that comic book fans know and love.

What's more, Stark has undergone something of a spiritual conversion in the mountains of Afghanistan, having seen his own Stark Industries weapons turned against him. At a hastily convened news conference, he announces that the company is getting out of the weapons business, bringing a shadow of alarm to the face of his business partner, Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges). Thenceforward, "Iron Man" sets about the business of proving that plowshares can be as sexy -- or at least as cinematic -- as swords.

It succeeds only fitfully. By turns talky, funny, draggy and occasionally pretty cool, "Iron Man" too often gets mired in grim joylessness, especially during the scenes set in Afghanistan (where the story keeps returning). But there's no doubt that, by the time the final showdown ends in a conflagration of overkill and absurdity, yet another Lee creation has proved ready for his close-up.

Downey clearly has a ball playing the weapons dealer Stark, best described as a cross between James Bond, Mick Jagger and Howard Hughes (whom Lee reportedly based Stark on). During an early flashback sequence, he's portrayed as a kid in a testosterone-laced candy store, living in a concrete temple to modernism in Malibu, delegating his longtime assistant Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) to dispatch his one-night stands with dry-cleaned clothes and a limo home, partying with his Pentagon liaison Jim Rhodes (Terrence Howard) in a private plane that, after a few drinks, transforms into a flying strip club. Once the guns start going off, "Iron Man" is fueled by so many explosions and sundry ejaculatory ya-yas that watching it is akin to sneaking into a treehouse past a sign saying "No Girls Allowed."

But this is where casting Downey was a stroke, if not of Stark genius, then at least of intelligence: Oceans of soul rage and roil behind those melted-chocolate eyes, and perhaps no actor alive better conveys arrogance, weakness, humor and self-awareness by simply being. One of the twists of "Iron Man" is that, unlike comic books in which insecure adolescents come to terms with their burgeoning physical powers, here a powerful, middle-aged man finds strength in vulnerability. It's a psychological balancing act that's right in Downey's wheelhouse, and one can only imagine what he'll make of Stark's dramatic reversals, declines and rebirths in subsequent installments.

For now, we have the first one, which suffers from all the expository weight and uneven pacing that bedevil so many origin stories. (As part of the seemingly endless line of comic book adaptations, "Iron Man" often feels like a less innocent and freewheeling "Spider-Man," a more psychologically edgy "Batman" and a slightly creakier older cousin to "X-Men.")

Toggling between the Hindu Kush and that fabulous house in the 'Bu, between Stark's impish goatee and Iron Man's full-metal body condom, between so many generic fireballs, kill shots and earsplitting thumps, bumps and crunches, "Iron Man" finally collapses under its own weight (not to mention that of a steroid-infused golem called Iron Monger). It's possible to see a decent franchise in "Iron Man" with Downey at its troubled center; the key is getting rid of the scrap metal.

Iron Man (120 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for some intense sequences of sci-fi action and violence, and brief suggested sexuality.

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