Heavy metal

While watching the season’s first stab at a blockbuster, “Iron Man,” I kept wondering to myself: “How long did it take lead Robert Downey Jr. to say ‘yes’ to the lead role?”

“Hmmm…” Downey said in my internal monologue. “Let’s see here. The character of Tony Stark is a motor-mouthed superhero in his 40s who is a reformed substance abusing, womanizing multi-millionaire… yeah, I think I can swing that.”

For the record, the total time for the above ellipses? Three seconds.

Regardless of past demons, the film is what it is solely because of what Downey brings to the table.

I have always pitied the poor directors who decide to sign on to a superhero comic-book adaptation. They face pressure and scrutiny from more than the average release audience. Their end product has to pass through the judging eyes of:

1)      The fanboys (and girls): A group that obsesses over the film’s minutiae (“Flames on Optimus Prime?! Inconceivable!”) in attempts to verify if the director is a true fan and to justify their own existence. (Dude, they are two-dimensional cartoons, even though you may comfort yourself in calling it a graphic novel).

2)      The critics: A haughty bunch who look forward to summer action films as much as kidney stones and will bestow upon even the best of the films faint, condescending praise.

3)      The newbies: Those who don’t know shinola about the characters involved and demand their hands be held through some of the more complex plot expositions.

Director Jon Favreau made sure to approach the film locked and loaded in an attempt to address all concerned parties. He creates a solid origin that is relatively easy to follow, tosses in a few nods to story arcs that have been featured in the comic throughout the years, and enlisted no fewer than four Oscar-nominated actors in the lead roles.

Downey is joined by Gwyneth Paltrow as his faithful assistant Pepper Potts, Terrance Howard as his best friend Jim Rhoads, and Jeff Bridges as mentor Obadiah Stane.

While Howard and Paltrow do not have sizeable roles this go-round, both allude to a stronger storyline in the presumable sequels (given the film’s $100-plus million opening weekend, it’s a safe bet they’ll be more).

Favreau was helped even further by securing screenwriters Mark Fergus and Hawk Ostby, the dynamic duo responsible for the brilliant-but-critically-underseen “Children of Men.” Their part is particularly relevant when the film grapples with Tony Stark’s attitude adjustment from a cocky arms dealer to humbled servant of those forced to live on the receiving end of his weaponry.

As common with most origin stories, the screenwriters treat us to many awkward test runs of Stark’s newfound powers, which are perhaps the film’s best scenes. His videotaped trial-and-error montages are a high point, punctuated by Downey’s charismatic snark and crackerjack wit.

Once Stark masters flight in his new robo-suit, Favreau provides some of the most exhilarating footage since Christopher Reeves first took to the sky 30 years ago in 1978’s “Superman.”

All these scenes, which occur about halfway through the picture, end up as the film’s leaden Achilles heel. For the final showdown can’t compare to the fanciful ride Downey has commandeered earlier in the film. It’s a rather rote Rockem-Sockem robot battle that momentarily dulls “Iron Man’s” otherwise polished sheen.

While it does not eclipse anticipation for the summer’s upcoming films featuring a certain nocturnal crimefighter or a geriatric, whip-sporting treasure hunter, “Iron Man” does kick the season off to a rousing start.

And it certainly holds the promise of greater, better-oiled adventures of its cast to follow.

~ by usesoapfilm on May 5, 2008.

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