GENRE: Superhero with spy flavor
THE PITCH: After being kidnapped in Afghanistan, playboy/industrialist Tony Stark (an exceptional Robert Downey Jr.) uses a heavily armed metal flying suit to right the wrongs of his company's munitions wing.
MONEY SHOTS: One of Stark's own bombs injures the hero in an early scene. "Iron Man 1.0" emerges from a cave like a kick-ass, flame-throwing Frankenstein. Stark's glitchy jet boots provide hilarious sight gags. Iron Man swoops into a war zone, blows away terrorists and outmaneuvers U.S. jets. His hulking counterpart "Iron Monger" makes a formidable foe in the rock 'em, sock 'em climax.
FUNNIEST LINE: "It's like Operation," Stark tells his gorgeous "gal Friday," Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), when he asks her to reach into a hole in his chest and jigger with his innards. Downey's best comedic foil, however, turns out to be a robotic fire extinguisher.
BODY COUNT: A fellow scientist's noble sacrifice inspires Stark's change of heart. At least three U.S. soldiers are shot off-camera. Iron Man none-too-gently dispatches dozens of terrorists, but the film fudges whether the explosions and metal punches prove fatal.
FASHION STATEMENTS: At a charity event, Paltrow wears a backless gown worthy of the Oscar red carpet. As sinister executive Obadiah Stane, Jeff Bridges' bald head and straggly goatee suggest Jeff Lebowski's evil twin. Iron Man's changing color scheme — gray, then gold, then red with gold accents — follows the armor's evolution in the early 1960s.
MORE INSIDE JOKES: The jazzy music that follows Stark around (and provides his ringtone) is an orchestral version of the "Iron Man" song from the 1960s cartoon. An old comic book villain, the ring-wearing "Mandarin," inspires the al-Qaeda-type organization, "The 10 Rings." Iron Man co-creator Stan Lee has his requisite cameo, this time as "Hef."
SOUNDTRACK FARE: Stark's fondness for heavy metal (figuratively and literally) enables the soundtrack to include AC/DC's "Back in Black," Suicidal Tendencies' "Institutionalized" and Black Sabbath's "Iron Man" — although the latter comes up less often than you'd expect. With its crunchy guitars, hot babes and brawling metal guys, Iron Man resembles Transformers without being idiotic.
PRODUCT PLACEMENT: An early montage of Stark's career features the covers of Wired, Forbes and Rolling Stone magazines, among others. Stark eats a Burger King cheeseburger after his Afghan ordeal. "Mad Money's" Jim Cramer appears as himself. Clips of the film could (and probably will) be used as a commercial for the Audi R8.
POLITICAL SUBTEXT: Along with some surprisingly sturdy themes of corporate responsibility and intellectual property, Iron Man offers a wish-fulfillment fantasy of a U.S. citizen vs. the military/industrial complex's destructive role in world affairs. Iron Man could find Osama bin Laden.
THE BOTTOM LINE: Marvel Studios builds a better superhero movie by making such radical innovations as smart writing, rich acting and a recognizable, real-world setting. Iron Man enjoys spectacular special effects without relying on them, and feels more like an American James Bond film than a wannabe Batman or Spider-Man franchise. Director Jon Favreau (Swingers, Elf) played the sidekick in the Daredevil movie, and clearly learned what not to do for Iron Man. 4 stars
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