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‘Iron Man’ launches another superhero summer season

Howie Nave
Zade Rosenthal / Paramount Pictures Gwyneth Paltrow and Robert Downey Jr. star in "Iron Man."
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It’s safe to say that the summer blockbuster season is starting a little bit earlier this year than last, and why not? Christmas seems to start in late August, so why not the so-called summer movie series? I mean, what with Harrison Ford’s “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” opening in a few weeks, the studios probably figured why be in competition with that surefire hit when we can open a couple of weeks earlier?

If “Iron Man” is any indication of what we can expect … well, bring it on! Plus it’s going to be a summer of comic-book and television superheroes, too, judging by the lineup. “The Incredible Hulk,” “The Dark Knight (Batman),” “Hancock” and next week’s “Speed Racer” are a few of the entries all competing for that much-coveted summer blockbuster dollar.

Robert Downey Jr. plays Tony Stark/Iron Man, a role that was tailor-made for him. Stark is a ladies’ man and also a billionaire who is head of Stark Industries (hmm … sounds a lot like Bruce Wayne, doesn’t it?), which happens to produce some of the most sophisticated military weapons in the United States. Call it weird timing, but Stark is taken hostage by a Middle Eastern terrorist group while overseas demonstrating the firepower of his technological gadgets. If you’re familiar with the original Marvel comic book series, Stark was captured by the Vietnamese in the ’60s, so it’s interesting to sort of update the politics and geography for this century.

In true comic-book form, rather than being forced by his captors to build for them a high-tech weapon of destruction, he instead builds for himself (you guessed it) a high-tech suit of armor and promptly escapes back to the United States. Did I mention that he’s also a brilliant inventor as well? He reminded me of this century’s MacGyver, able to build something out of a few spare parts lying around the cave.

When Stark returns home, he vows never again to build weapons of war, which was his company’s staple, but his second-in-command, Obadiah Stane (played by an almost unrecognizable Jeff Bridges) has other ideas. More on him later.

One thing I like about this movie based on a comic book is that Iron Man, like Batman, is human and doesn’t need some radiation burst from outer space or a spider bite to transform him into a bona fide superhero. However, unlike Batman or Spider-Man, Iron Man decides to tackle the whole world’s problems, à la Superman, which might be good globally, but why can’t these superheroes keep it local, you know? Hey, if it means lowering gas prices, then maybe the Middle East is a good place to start. It really doesn’t matter; I was just pleasantly surprised that this movie had just as much excitement in its human characters as it does with all those CGI effects.

Besides Robert Downey Jr.’s charismatic performance as Stark and Iron Man, he is fortunate to be working with an equally charismatic (and funny, too!) cast that gives top-notch performances. Co-starring with Downey are Gwyneth Paltrow and Terrence Howard. Oh, yeah, and that bald guy who looks sort of familiar is the very heavily made-up Jeff Bridges, whom I referred to earlier, in the role of Obadiah Stane. Sometimes your worst enemies can come from your own organization.

Howard turns in an exceptional performance as Jim “Rhodey” Rhodes, who helps Stark perfect what will be the classic Iron Man suit.

Both Howard and Bridges have been nominated for Oscars, and even though no one here will be nominated for the statue, the movie was very entertaining to watch, and you don’t even have to be familiar with the comic book, either, to enjoy the ride here. If you are a fan of comic books, look for Stan Lee in yet another cameo here – but playing himself this time.

Audiences will be surprised just how good Paltrow is in this movie. The Oscar-winning actress (1998’s “Shakespeare in Love”), who usually has been associated with highbrow films (OK, so 2001’s “Shallow Hal” wasn’t exactly that), looks like she really enjoyed being a part of her very first true blockbuster movie. She (along with the other principal players) already has signed on for two sequels, so being a part of yet another comic-book-inspired superhero franchise is job security in itself. Like she really needs it. Paltrow plays “Pepper” Potts, Tony Stark’s assistant, who is more than your everyday secretary. Like most people in her position, she knows how to run the place (and her boss, too). She goes toe-to-toe with Stark, sets up all the important media for PR presentations and – oh, yeah – saves his life, too. The two actors had a chemistry that worked, and it shows on the screen in the roles that they play.

Director (and sometime actor) Jon Favreau was a good choice for “Iron Man,” because he not only has the advantage in working with fellow actors, but with the powerful ensemble cast in this film, he also took a lot of their suggestions to punch up some of the scenes, and they worked well. What a far cry from his directing the comedy “Elf” (2003).

The battle scenes of metal are pretty good, and if the movie does great at the box office, you can expect the first sequel to arrive soon, since the ending already makes it clear there will be another.

– Howie Nave is host/manager of The Improv comedy club inside Harveys and reviews films for seven radio stations throughout Northern California and Nevada, including Sirius Radio. He hosts “Howie’s Morning Rush” on Tahoe’s KRLT radio, and you can see his film reviews on RSN. For past reviews, blogs and audio clips, visit http://www.HowieNave.com.


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