An iron-clad hero lands with a thud

A poignant performance by Robert Downey Jr. can't quite save 'Iron Man.'

You know the superhero genre has come of age when Marvel Comics goes to Afghanistan. In "Iron Man," the first film fully financed by the mammoth entertainment company, the titular hero, played by Robert Downey Jr., gets to mix it up with bad guys who, although they are not identified as such, could easily be Taliban. (If only he had made it to Iraq.)

Before he becomes Iron Man – that is, before he comes to resemble the Michelin Man in red- and gold-plated armor – our hero is the none-too-heroic Tony Stark, supergenius inventor, jillion­aire scamp, and CEO of America's biggest weapons dealership. (The character was patterned on Howard Hughes when he made his comic-book debut in 1963.)

Early in the film Tony visits Afghanistan to show off his latest attack missiles and is kidnapped by enemy rebels wanting him to build them their very own weapon. Instead, he constructs an armored suit complete with grenade and rocket launchers and makes his escape back to America and the Malibu aerie that doubles as his crash pad and high-tech laboratory.

Tony replaces his shrapnel-injured ticker with a glowing thingamajig of his own invention, and the change of heart is both literal and metaphorical. Seeing up close the havoc wreaked by his armaments, he renounces war profiteering, much to the chagrin of his business partner, Jeff Bridges's Obadiah Stane. (I love these comic-book names!) An incipient good guy, Tony devotes all his time to perfecting his armored outfit, complete with boot jets that allow him to soar.

Much has been made by Marvel of the fact that Iron Man, unlike, say, the X-Men or the Fantastic Four, is entirely human. But when Tony is zooming into the stratosphere raining destruction on bad guys, he's about as "human" as a Jedi knight. Or at least he would be if he were played by anyone but Downey. It's unusual for a great actor to be cast in the lead role in a comic-book movie. In these situations, sometimes OK actors are better than great actors anyway – Tobey Maguire makes more sense, for example, as Spider-Man than, say, Ryan Gosling.

But Downey comes equipped with such a load of dark introspection and cunning that you can't imagine anyone else in the role once you've seen him. His trademark intonation – a kind of hasty, ominous patter – makes perfect sense for a man whose thoughts run ahead of his mouth. Downey gives his reformed "merchant of death" a poignancy that goes a long way toward humanizing what might otherwise have been a "Terminator"-style flick.

With the exception of Bridges, who makes his bald-pated Obadiah a fitting adversary, the rest of the cast – which includes Terrence Howard as a Pentagon official and Gwyneth Paltrow as Tony's lovelorn assistant – is fairly perfunctory. Director Jon Favreau doesn't go for an obvious comic-book look, but he also doesn't go in for much of anything else. When Iron Man is zooming above bejewelled southern California, I expected a thundering lyricism but instead settled for some routine CGI stunts. I suppose it's asking too much for a great actor to be matched up with a great director on a project like this. On the other hand, there's always the sequel. (PG-13, for sci-fi violence and brief suggestive content.)

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