(a film review by Mark R. Leeper)

CAPSULE: A weapons manufacturer decides that the making of weapons is immoral, so turns himself into a weapon to combat bad weapons users. If you can get past the irony (or hypocrisy) of the central concept Jon Favreau's adaptation of the Marvel Comic is reasonably entertaining and uses its digital effects energetically. Robert Downey, Jr.--definitely not a Christopher Reeve type--plays the arms tycoon who builds a suit to give him super powers. Rating: high +1 (-4 to +4) or 6/10

Spoiler warning: there are minor plot spoilers below. One spoiler is saved for the end of the review.

The first big blockbuster of the 2008 summer is IRON MAN. At a high level the story is fine as a Marvel Comic Book on the wide screen. Most of the lower level details should have been given more thought. Tony Stark (played by Robert Downey, Jr.) is sort of a modern-day Howard Hughes, part playboy, part genius engineer. He is a fabulously wealthy second-generation arms manufacturer. Tony Stark has a sort of popular celebrity status in much the way that arms manufacturers usually do not have in our universe. In Afghanistan he is promoting his company's new missile system--powerful enough nearly to nearly kill himself when he launches it (so who will he get to launch it?).

Shortly after he is captured by enemy meanies who want him to recreate his missile using as building parts the spare parts they have assembled in a cave. It must be a really well-equipped cave to rival what a major industrialist can do in the United States. They will watch him via cameras because it is higher-tech than putting one of their own people in the room with him. Then he builds an armored power-suit instead of a missile. Luckily his captors are not watching him closely enough to notice the difference. With his suit he has superpowers and he emerges as what will become Iron Man.

All superheroes need an Achilles Heel, even Achilles. Stark's weakness is that as part of the capture he ended up with metal shrapnel in his blood stream. If they reach his heart he will dies. He is being kept alive only by a strong electromagnet embedded in a port in his chest, one with lights on it so he can find his keys in the dark. He will die if he is without his magnet for any longer than the six minutes or so the film shows he can go without it. Meantime the shrapnel caught in this tug of war is apparently scraping out his arteries. How he is avoiding stroke is anybody's guess. With his power suit he is able to get out of his Afghan scrape, but his plan to vacate the arms business puts him into direct conflict with his father's old partner Obadiah Stane. (Wouldn't Charles Dickens have loved that name.) Stane is played by Jeff Bridges with a startling new look, a shaved head with a moustache and beard making it obvious he is sinister. Stark's main support comes from his counter- feminist factotum, Gwyneth Paltrow in the role of Pepper Potts, perhaps a step down even from her Polly Perkins in SKY CAPTAIN AND THE WORLD OF TOMORROW.

The script by a large team of contributors raises and then ignores some moral issues. One is the question of whether one can bring an end to weapons by creating newer and more powerful weapons. Even in the film this strategy is less than totally effective, though we are expected to agree with Stark's beliefs. Stark does not kill for any motive but self-defense. But he hands a villain over to Afghan peasants who will likely not share his scruples. This is apparently his version of the United States policy of rendition.

Jon Favreau is an actor of the Ben Affleck and Vince Vaughn generation. Without the good looks of a Vaughn or am Affleck he is now behind the camera directing, and probably making better contributions there. Previously he directed MADE, ELF, and ZATHURA. In this film he directs but also has the tiny role as Tony Stark's chauffeur Hogan. Downey is pleasant to watch for his tongue in cheek characterization. He behaves like someone trying desperately to seem unflappable while he really is not, like he is watching events out of the corners of his eyes. Terrence Howard is around as Stark's friend and liaison to the military, but he does not have much opportunity to act. Notable is Shaun Toub of THE KITE RUNNER and TV's "Lost" as a fellow captive who becomes Stark's friend. Also in a tiny role is Stan Lee, the creator of Iron Man, who traditionally shows up someplace to get his face on the screen in many films based on Marvel Comics. Samuel L. Jackson plays another familiar Stan Lee character in a scene that is saved as a special reward for those who are loyal enough to sit through the credits.

This is a sort of a turn-your-mind-off comic book on the screen. It is clearly popular, but not one of the best few superhero films. I would rate it a high +1 on the -4 to +4 scale or 6/10.

Film Credits:

Spoiler warning.

Toward the end our Iron Man fights someone in a power-suit nearly twice as high as his is. It is supposedly his design, but just made bigger. But Stark's suit fits around him like a glove. His legs fit into the legs of the suit and his head fits into the helmet. Make a suit twice as large as its operator is and it would have to operate a very different way. The operator's legs could not reach to the legs of the suit so the legs would have to be fully robotic rather than just power-assists. Stark can kick his real left leg forward, but in the double suit that leg would be only at the level of the suit's belly. The double-sized suit really could not be based on Stark's suit.

					Mark R. Leeper
					Copyright 2008 Mark R. Leeper