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“Iron Man” (****) Savvy storytelling makes up for lack of ingenuity

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Posted: Friday, May 9, 2008 10:00 pm

One could criticize “Iron Man” for its lack of creativity, and in a sense that would be a valid complaint. As directed by Jon Favreau (whose previous filmmaking experience is limited to the likes of “Elf” and “Zathura”) the movie takes few chances and pretty much plays things by the book. It follows the standard superhero formula in every aspect, and brings nothing new to the genre.

However, despite its straight-forward nature and lack of daring, “Iron Man” delivers on a level that not even the most fervent and blindly optimistic comic book geek could have anticipated.

Favreau may lack the ingenuity of directors like Sam Raimi (the “Spider-Man” trilogy) and especially Christopher Nolan (“Batman Begins”), but what he lacks in originality he more than makes up for in old-fashioned storytelling savvy. His “Iron Man” is lean and proficient, and hits all the right notes in bringing this long-awaited project to the big screen.

It’s action-packed, but not overloaded. It’s funny, yet not cringe-inducing. It’s heartfelt, but far from schmaltzy. In rejecting fanciness in favor of machine-like efficiency, Favreau and company have made one of the greatest comic book adaptations of all time. (I’d give the edge to “Spider-Man 2” for its greater emotional impact, but “Iron Man” is perhaps a close second.)

The film is an origin story, and chronicles the transformation of weapons manufacturer Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) from boozy, womanizing billionaire playboy to selfless, noble superhero. His arc begins in Afghanistan (a modern-day replacement for the original comic book’s locale of Vietnam), where after showcasing his latest super-bomb for the U.S. military, Stark is abducted by a group of Islamic terrorists who order this master of war to build them a similar bomb.

Instead, Stark uses his time and materials to construct a massive iron suit, complete with built-in weapons and flight capability, that allows him to escape his captors and embark on his new life as a bleeding-heart humanitarian whose mission is to take out the growing terrorist organization and destroy the weapons he once helped build.

“Iron Man” is filled with great action, smart writing and a capable supporting cast (including Oscar honorees Gwyneth Paltrow as Stark’s loyal assistant, Terrence Howard as his military liaison and Jeff Bridges as his shady business partner), but ultimately the entire project rests on the shoulders of Robert Downey, Jr.

When he was first cast, everyone agreed that it was an interesting choice, but not all were convinced that he could completely pull it off. I was among the doubters, but I’m all too happy to say that I was wrong. He owns the movie with his seemingly effortless charisma and charming magnetism, and I am now certain that nobody else could have even come close to capturing Stark’s essence the way Downey has.

It’s strange to say this about a superhero movie, but “Iron Man” is far and away the best film we’ve seen so far this year, and I hope Favreau and his cast and crew have it in them to make several more “Iron Man” films. When you combine this kind of quality storytelling with the level of box office success the movie has already achieved, you’ve got the makings for a great, long-running franchise.

“Iron Man” is rated PG-13 for violence, profanity and mild sexual content.

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