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Stark choices

Movies | Iron Man presents a superhero in search of redemption

Issue: "Return of the Lion," May 17, 2008

It's understating the case to say that Robert Downey Jr., an actor with bottomless reservoirs of charm, is good in Iron Man. He is Iron Man, and not just the character, but the film itself-a total popcorn flick in which Downey gives what may be the best performance on screen this year. Beyond mere professionalism, though, it's encouraging to see someone with a precise, instinctual grasp of his craft in a user-friendly blockbuster movie. It's like a comic book by Nabokov.

Speaking of comic books, the Marvel Comics character of engineer Tony Stark is a perfect fit for Downey, whose potentially brilliant career has unfurled in fits and starts, handicapped by his heavily publicized substance abuse problems. The ultra-slick Stark has similar quirks: alcoholism, an irresponsible streak a mile wide, and a feckless lack of conscience that gets him, immediately, into loads of trouble. In the movie's opening sequence, Stark is chatting with the soldiers ferrying him from his latest weapons demonstration, glibly asserting that "Peace means having a bigger stick than the other guy."

Soon Stark is abducted, imprisoned, and waterboarded by some local thugs with very big sticks indeed-rockets, guns, and bombs that say "Stark Industries" on the side. The Afghan bad guys tie him to a chair, set up a video camera, and director Jon Favreau cuts back to a shot that name-checks those awful beheading videos played over and over again on the news. Cut to the opening credits.

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As with all good sci-fi films, Iron Man is about wish fulfillment. Having discovered, like most news-reading Americans, that the venal in this country have been arming the wicked in that country, Stark sets about fixing the problem personally, first by escaping and shutting down his personal weapons factories, and then by dressing up as a sports car to mete out justice. In the film's most satisfying action sequence, Iron Man zips between hemispheres to pound the stuffing out of a dozen or so Taliban look-alikes who are making trouble with the locals. Hostage situation? No problem. Tanks? Even less of a problem.

As hard as the movie sometimes tries, it really isn't about politics. With Downey running the show, Iron Man is about paying for the things that you've broken, and it's a pity that the title "Atonement" is taken. The movie is rated PG-13 for violence and for brief glimpses into Stark's old, salacious lifestyle, but the real subject of the film is IM's relationship with his PA, Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow, who is good, but how on earth did she get here? Did she wander onto the wrong set?).

Pepper is Stark's center of gravity, and the more he comes to his senses, the more he realizes he needs her. By the end, Stark is willing to take responsibility for all of his actions, with Pepper by his side. It's a nice sort of happily-ever-after, and the film's ending emphasizes a new kind of superhero: one in search of redemption.

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